Inspired by the likes of Louis Pasteur and Marie Curie, Alex Matter was only 12 years old when he began dreaming that he, too, would one day be involved in the discovery of important new medicines. But the Swiss scientist, who heads oncology research at Basel drugmaker Novartis, never imagined that nearly half a century later he would make one of the most important contributions to date in cancer research.
Matter, 61, and his team of 300 scientists discovered Glivec, the first oral drug shown to be effective in the treatment of chronic myeloid leukemia (CML). The drug astounded researchers in its first clinical trials in June, 1998, when all 31 patients involved in the study went into remission. Its performance is inspiring huge expectations in the scientific community. "Our hope," says Matter, "is to turn cancer into a chronic and treatable disease."
As a result of the 1998 trial, Novartis poured millions into further research and development. Just 32 months after the first clinical trials, Glivec has filed for approval with global regulators and is expected to hit the market sometime this summer. The drug, which will be marketed in the U.S. as Gleevec, was approved on May 10 by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration for use in the treatment of CML. It is awaiting approval in Europe, Japan, Canada, and Australia. The speed of development is all the more impressive considering most drugs take about seven years from testing to market. Now, doctors are testing its efficacy on certain types of cancerous tumors. So far, the results are promising: A significant percentage of patients with growths known as gastrointestinal stomal tumors, for instance, have seen their tumors shrink or even disappear.
For Matter, Glivec is the result of decades of painstaking and often frustrating oncology research. After receiving an M.D. and PhD from the Universities of Basel and Geneva, Matter did immunology and pathology research in Britain, France, and the U.S. before entering the pharmaceutical industry. Time and again, oncology reserarchers such as Matter thought they were close to finding a cure for cancer. "At each stage of research we made a little more progress, but after years without any major breakthrough, disillusionment would set in," he recalls.
Matter and his team made important strides toward a breakthrough in 1990, however. They discovered a promising new compound that they thought would inhibit the protein associated with the growth of CML. Their excitement was tempered by the knowledge that, at any point of the testing, their promising new molecule might fail. "We always told ourselves that this one must work or everything we knew about the disease and cancer biology is wrong," Matter says. "Failure would have been a catastrophe." In 1998, at the beginning of clinical trials, their patience was rewarded. The researchers discovered that Glivec, given at low doses, dramatically reduced cancer cells in the first handful of leukemia patients very early in testing. "That was the moment of revelation," recalls Matter. "Any and all doubts about the drug's efficacy were swept away."
Glivec's success is all the more poignant for Matter, who lost a close friend and fellow scientist to CML many years ago. "We are far from a cure for cancer, but clearly we are making progress," he says. These days, he's interested in exploring how natural compounds, such as fungi and plants, can be used to develop new cancer drugs. One promising compound in early-stage testing is called Epithilone B, a fungus that is proving effective in interrupting cellular growth--a process that can ultimately kill tumor cells. Altogether, under Matter's guidance, Novartis now has 10 cancer compounds under development and will launch three new oncology treatments this year. That's a big change from just five years ago, when it was virtually nowhere in the oncology treatment field.
Matter's free time is increasingly limited these days as Novartis pulls out all the stops to build its oncology franchise. But the Basel native stresses that his work is so rewarding he doesn't mind the long hours. In his rare days out of the lab, the father of four enjoys mountaineering. No doubt even the Alps must seem surmountable these days.