Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Magic Cancer Bullet

About a year ago, basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar began getting hot flashes and sweats on a regular basis and a medical exam showed that he had a very high white blood cell count. The diagnosis was CML – chronic myeloid (or myelogenous) leukemia – a rare and slowly progressing cancer of the bone marrow and white blood cells that usually occurs during or after middle age. Mr. Abdul-Jabbar was 62 years old when diagnosed.

Luckily for Mr. Abdul-Jabbar, there is a “magic bullet” called Gleevec (or Glivec) that was the first example of a completely new class of cancer drugs that target cancer cells in a very specific way with far fewer side effects than traditional chemotherapy. When this “magic cancer bullet” was first developed, it generated tremendous excitement in the cancer research community because these new types of drugs had the potential to transform cancer from a killer disease to a manageable chronic illness or even cure the disease entirely. Dr. Daniel Vasella, CEO of Novartis (the drug company that developed Glivec), wrote a book about the discovery of this “Magic Cancer Bullet.”

Describing drugs as “magic bullets” began over a hundred years ago when a German scientist, Paul Ehrlich, discovered the first modern antibiotic, a drug called Salvarsan 606 (because it was the 606th chemical he tested) that could cure syphilis. This discovery earned Ehrlich a Nobel Prize in 1908. Ehrlich’s story was made into a Hollywood movie in 1940 with legendary actor Edward G. Robinson playing Dr. Ehrlich.

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Mark Boguski, M.D., Ph.D. is on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and is a member of the Society for Participatory Medicine, "a movement in which networked patients shift from being mere passengers to responsible drivers of their health" and in which professional health care providers encourage "empowered patients" and value them as full partners in managing their health and wellness.

2 Comments

  1. Kevin Li

    November 22, 2014 at 12:18 am

    One thing that I’ve noticed about Celebritydiagnosis.com is that it does a terrific job of educating its readers about various medical issues, providing clear diagrams and informative explanations. However, when describing various treatment options, the posts usually do not go into any detail about the cost of treatment. While the cost of treatment less important to a patient than actually receiving that treatment, it is still a very important healthcare issue. An extreme example of the high cost of healthcare is the cost of treating one form of cancer, chronic myelogenous leukemia, or CML. While this article on former basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s CML is rather old, I think that it still dodges the issue of healthcare cost just as much as more recent articles.

    Gleevec, a drug developed by Novartis, is described as a “magic bullet” against CML. Its potential to manage or even cure CML was undeniable. So, Novartis realized it could profit enormously, justifying more than ten years of research, clinical trials, and spending in the development of this wonder drug. According to a 2009 article in the prestigious medical journal New England Journal of Medicine, the annual treatment cost of Gleevec is more than $56,000 per patient. To some, this is literally the price to live. This high cost is a substantial barrier to CML patients as well as insurance companies; unfortunately, it is a cost to be paid to live with CML. In today’s healthcare system, the cost of treatment can be as concerning as the disease being treated. A website such as Celebritydiagnosis.com could further benefit its audience by giving its readers a sense of the costs of those wonderful treatments being described.

    • Priscilla

      August 5, 2015 at 3:31 am

      My daughter was 14 yrs in remission. The first drug she was ever given at age 10 was glee vac. It hank you glee vac. She eventually had to move on to a different drug called “sprycell”. They worked wonders but now her body has rejected them . So see what is next.

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