In 2011, Seattle Genetics, the company that Dr. Clay Siegall founded in 1998, was granted FDA approval for its first drug, Adcetris. This drug, generic name brentuximab vedotin, was a revolutionary new kind of cancer treatment called an antibody drug conjugate. Over the next five years, Adcetris would prove itself under real-world treatment scenarios, changing the way cancer is fought and driving more resources into the research and development of antibody drug conjugates for all types of malignancies.
Tinkering with the gears of nature
Dr. Siegall was always interested in ways to reduce the pain and suffering of existing cancer treatments. In college, he became aware of the barbarity of many of the reigning treatment modalities for cancer, such as radiation, chemotherapy and surgery, often radical and involving the complete amputation of body parts.
Almost all of these treatments left patients with permanent deficits, at best, and permanent disabilities, at worst. Over his time as a senior researcher at Bristol-Meyers-Squibb, Dr. Siegall helped discover and develop a new class of drugs called antibody drug conjugates that eliminated the systemic side effects of chemotherapy and radiation and promised to obviate the need for radical surgery. The drugs operated by delivering the anti-cancer chemical directly to the tumor. With an enzyme or antibody acting as a sort of lock to which only the cancer cells hold the key, the cytotoxin, or cell killing drug, can only be released in the direct presence of the tumor cells. While, in principle, this is conceptually simple, it is far easier said than done.
In 1998, Dr. Siegall founded his own company, Seattle Genetics. It quickly began developing the practical biologic means by which to deliver the cytotoxins directly to the tumor site. In one ingenious patented process, Seattle Genetics developed a system by which mice are injected with tumor-specific proteins. The mice’s bodies then produce tumor antigens. These antigens are not generally effective in suppressing the aggressive tumor, but they do contain the genetic key pattern to attach to that tumor type. Seattle Genetics then engineers a similar molecule and attaches the cytotoxin to it. The molecule goes hunting for the specific tumor cells and, when it finds them, releases the cytotoxin.