Just like people, the cells in human bodies aren’t in a hurry to meet their maker. Normally, cells have a natural life cycle that ends in a process called apoptosis, which eliminates old or damaged cells to make room for the new. Problem is, sometimes cells cheat death by mooching off certain proteins in the body—an act of rebellion that lets those cells survive, spawn, and generally wreak havoc. And that’s one of the ways people get cancer.
A new drug called Venclexta, developed by Chicago-based AbbVie, restores the natural cell life cycle in chronic lymphocytic leukemia patients who have a specific gene mutation by blocking that protein lifeline. The result? The malignant cells essentially commit suicide.
In 2007, after a decade of grueling work, researchers zeroed in on BCL-2 as the crucial protein and began designing a molecule that would attach to it in exactly the right way to trigger its off switch. Venclexta did so well in clinical trials—more than 80 percent of 106 patients on the drug went into at least partial remission—that the FDA fast-tracked its approval. The drug, which is administered in pill form once a day, hit the market last April.
Now AbbVie is testing Venclexta on other blood cancers, such as acute myeloid leukemia. “The common philosophy [when we started the research] was don’t bother, it can’t be done,” says Michael Severino, executive vice president of research and development and chief scientific officer at AbbVie. But it looks like these stubborn rogue cells may have met their match.