UNLESS YOU HAVE multiple myeloma, a rare and vicious cancer of the blood, chances are you haven’t heard of Revlimid. The immunomodulatory drug slows the growth of new blood vessels, and it’s a product of the kind of ingenuity and daring that once made the pharmaceutical industry among the most respected in America. It’s also a handy stand-in for everything that’s wrong with the business today.
In the early 1990s, researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital stumbled on an old sedative that appeared to slow the progress of myeloma. The drug, thalidomide, was infamous. It had been prescribed widely for morning sickness in the 1950s, but caused thousands of horrific birth defects. Still, nothing had ever been as effective against multiple myeloma, so a biotechnology company called Celgene took a risk and spent millions of dollars developing an analogue of the compound, transforming thalidomide into a more potent cancer drug.
It worked: When the FDA approved Revlimid to treat meyloma in 2006, it revolutionized the cancer’s treatment. Average survival time jumped from three or four years in the late ’90s to almost a decade today. “There’s not one other disease where you can say we tripled survival in that period of time,” says Mohamad Hussein, Celgene’s head of scientific affairs. Through calculated risk and dedicated bench work, Celgene had turned poison into gold.