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.

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