Why venture capital poured $1 billion into a drug for breast cancer instead of immunotherapy or cancer vaccines

In the modern era, multispecies networks have been a major area of research. Back in 2000, the election of Bill Clinton signaled a robust commitment to biology and genetics in the federal government. Almost immediately after his election, then Vice President Al Gore convened a summit to discuss health-policy, drug policy, and biomedical research. The summit concluded with a statement about the importance of using all of the tools at his disposal to control or control-leverage the genome, and forging cooperation between the different cell types to conduct a variety of medical testing. While the commitment to gene-synthesis technology was ambiguous during most of the Clinton administration, Gore’s political appointment of Scott Gottlieb to head the Department of Health and Human Services signaled the commitment to using genomics to improve public health. The National Institute of Health’s growing awareness of genomics also allowed NIH to increase funding for gene therapies in the form of alternate-genome research.

Biotech companies expanded from simple genetics laboratories to national research institutions with seed money from the National Institutes of Health. Many research institutions made a concerted effort to be accredited in order to expand our understanding of how genes and genomes were involved in our bodies. These are the institutions that bear the responsibility for capturing what we know about gene-synthesis.

Now, we are approaching the first billion-dollar life sciences company. Many people would have written off Medivation after it acquired an aging drug and announced it was closing its biotechnology division. But one aspect of the most recent demonstration of our revolution in gene-synthesis history has become a source of new interest. Medivation and its main drug, exon-skipping drug enzalutamide, have been searching for ways to make their drug last longer. Medivation had begun building its pipeline based on the success of enzalutamide in recurrent prostate cancer and decided to discontinue that work to focus on the progress of treating patients with other tumors. They have an exclusive license from the University of California in San Francisco to continue to explore the possibility of extending the life of enzalutamide.

Now the vast majority of the world’s best-known venture-capital firms have invested heavily in a lead company that aims to develop an enzalutamide to treat other cancers, including breast, lung, and pancreatic cancer. Based on research we do at UCSF, we are optimistic that enzalutamide will eventually help save far more lives than our dream of a deoxyribonucleic acid vaccine did to prevent the most prevalent and lethal cancers of our time.

After all, we have to start somewhere, and we have a company with sufficient capital to support an as-yet unproven program.

Danae Ringelmann, Ph.D., is the founding director of the MIT Media Lab, where she leads the “Evolution of Film” program, which conducts innovative approaches to visualization of organisms, species, and natural ecosystems. Yuhui Jiang, M.S., is an assistant professor of computer science at the Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley.

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