A Cancer Drug that Impacted My Life for SLL


After reading a book about how Imbruvica was revolutionized for SLL and CLL, I now have a greater appreciation for the drugs I receive.

Illustration of a woman with very curly red hair.

As a patient diagnosed with small lymphocytic lymphoma (SLL), my interest was piqued when I heard an interview with the author, Nathan Vardi who wrote the book, “For Blood and Money: Billionaires, Biotech, And the Quest for a Blockbuster Drug.”Vardi, a finance writer, found the story of how the first BTK inhibitors were developed fascinating. So much so, that he decided to write a book about it. This drug called Imbruvica (Ibrutinib) “revolutionized” the treatment of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) and SLL. As a patient on Calquence (acalabrutinib), which is a new generation of Imbruvica, I wanted to know more about this pill that revolutionized treatment for patients like me.

Vardi brought different people together to get their input. This included investors because billions are spent on cancer research. It also included physician-scientists, people who work in cubicles in biotechnology offices, as well as patients. No one person could do this. Patients who volunteered for clinical trials were at the very core.

This drug took a unique journey to make it over the finish line. So many contributed to making it available. Most of us who are patients have no idea what goes into these drugs that have helped tens of thousands of people. It also helps all of us who are lucky enough to be able to take this drug understand why these pills are so expensive.

Originally, the drug was developed for rheumatoid arthritis. Then, it was pursued for lymphoma treatment. At that time, they also used blood samples from patients with CLL because it was easier to obtain. Luck definitely played a role. When that showed promise, they changed their focus to pursuing the drug for CLL, not lymphoma, and more money was invested in it.

Vardi explained that biotech engineers wanted to study the biological effects on the human body. He said, initially, “...a covalent bond that irreversibly binds to its target was shunned by the biotech universe.” The fact that this drug ended up being used for blood cancer treatment is a crazy story. So many things could have gone wrong, but luck was on their side.

Vardi decided to write his book to explain how this drug became an option for patients. He wanted people to understand the process of drug development. There is the “financial piece, the regulatory piece (like FDA approval), the science piece, and of course, the different personalities that all had to come together.” Vardi said in his interview, “How does this happen? Patients should realize what goes into it. Patients can appreciate the insight of how the drug process works.” He stated, “Most people are not interested until it is front and center and they are the patient.”

Now this drug has led to new-generation drugs like the one I currently take, and I am so grateful for the whole process. If not for the actions that took place, Calquence would not have been developed in time for me to take it and have the benefits of living a quality life because of it. Next on my list of books to read will be “For Blood and Money: Billionaire, Biotech, and the Quest for a Blockbuster Drug.” Thank you, Nathan Vardi, for writing a book that I was also told was quite an interesting read!

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