In 2006, two of Ira Mellman's colleagues were diagnosed with cancer. Mellman was at Yale -- he was the chair of his department, and the scientific director of the school's cancer center. At the time, he loved academia, and could have stayed there forever, he says. But he remembers the moment the switch flipped.
His wife came home after visiting one of their mutual friends who had been diagnosed with cancer. "My wife was saying, 'you guys say you're so smart, why can't you do anything to help her?'" That was an oversimplification, Mellman knew, but it shook him.
Back in 2005, Mellman had been asked to speak at biotechnology company Genentech, and was offered a job there shortly after. Initially, he dismissed the offer. But his friends' diagnoses made him reconsider. In academia, he realized, Mellman wasn't in the best position to fast-track potential cancer drugs. He joined Genentech in 2007, and now leads the company's research related to the relationship between cancer and immunology.
Already, he's worked on some promising projects. One involves a protein called PD-L1, which is an antibody that normally protects cells from the body's immune response. But some cancer cells have PD-L1 on their surface so they can sneak by white blood cells undetected. Mellman is now researching treatments for cancer patients that target this interaction between PD-L1 and the immune system. Under Mellman's watch, PD-L1-based treatments have gotten to Phase II and Phase III clinical trials in only two-and-a-half years. "I was told this would never happen -- that it would take seven years at least to get to patients."
The switch from academia to the corporate world can feel jarring, but it's good, Mellman says. "It's like, getting a shot of adrenaline that you never even knew you needed. Now my mantra is, 'stop talking about it and just do the damn experiment.'"
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