Stanford Cancer Expert Ronald Levy Will Receive King Faisal Prize in Medicine March 29

Mon Mar 23, 2009 11:18am EDT

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STANFORD, Calif.--(Business Wire)--
The development of a drug that has revolutionized the treatment of many types of
cancer has earned its inventor, Ronald Levy, MD, the 2009 King Faisal
International Prize in Medicine. 

More than 30 years ago, Levy, now chief of the oncology division at the Stanford
University School of Medicine, embarked on a research agenda that harnessed the
power of the body`s own immune system to fight cancer. Levy developed the
concept that a drug made from a naturally produced blood protein called an
antibody could be a cancer-fighting machine. 

On March 29, Levy, who holds the Robert K. and Helen K. Summy Professorship at
Stanford, will be honored for this seminal discovery by Saudi Arabian royalty,
who will present Levy with his most prestigious international award to date. 

Rituxan, the drug that resulted from Levy`s work, was approved by the Food and
Drug Administration in 1997, making it the first commercial antibody to treat
cancer. "Now it`s recommended for treating almost every lymphoma patient, and
over 1 million people have been treated with it so far," he said. 

According to Levy, when combined with other drugs and radiotherapy, Rituxan is
successful at reducing tumor size in most patients who are treated. Originally
developed for the treatment of lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system, this
class of drug is now part of the standard treatment for a wide range of cancers,
including cancer of the breast, colon and lungs. "Monoclonal antibodies have
transformed the way cancer is treated," said Levy, who is a member of the
Stanford Cancer Center. 

Levy joins the elite rank of 19 Americans who have received King Faisal
International Prizes in Medicine since they were first awarded in 1982. The King
Faisal Foundation, a philanthropic organization founded in 1976 by the eight
sons of the late King Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, awards approximately five
prizes each year to those who make notable contributions in the fields of
Islamic studies and service, Arabic language and literature, science and

"I was nominated by Dean Pizzo for the Faisal award at least eight or nine
months ago. He asked for my permission, and I said `OK,`" said Levy, recounting
the conversation with Philip Pizzo, MD, the medical school`s dean. "I didn`t
think it was very likely that I would be chosen. By the time I found out, my
picture was already on the foundation`s Web site." 

Levy`s efforts have focused on treating lymphoma. Forming the backbone of the
immune system are B-lymphocytes-white blood cells that sound the alarm in
response to foreign invaders. When a pathogen enters the body, B cells produce
antibodies, proteins that circulate throughout the bloodstream and mark
pathogens for destruction. In lymphoma, these B cells multiply uncontrollably,
eventually crowding out healthy cells. 

"Dr. Ron Levy is one of the most remarkable and accomplished
physician-scientists in the world," said Pizzo. "With nearly laser-like focus he
has dedicated his illustrious career to unraveling innovative ways of treating
malignant lymphomas. He and his colleagues have virtually transformed our
knowledge about tumor immunology and cancer biology, and his research has
resulted in dramatic improvements in the treatment and survival of patients with

Rituxan targets a protein, called CD20, found on the surface of normal B cells
and present in many lymphoma tumors. The prevalence of CD20 makes the drug
relatively economical: it is not necessary to concoct a custom-made antibody for
each patient. Although Rituxan targets normal B lymphocytes in addition to the
tumor cells, it causes fewer side effects than conventional cancer treatments.
Surprisingly, the drug results in no permanent damage to the immune system. 

Two scientists working in England paved the way for Levy`s cancer treatment
successes. In 1975, Georges Koehler, PhD, and Cesar Milstein, PhD, created what
they called hybridomas. "They glued antibody-making cells together with cancer
cells to produce hybridomas, which lived forever and provided a permanent supply
of monoclonal antibody," said Levy. 

Hybridomas could be used to continually mass produce very specific antibodies
that could target a particular marker, such as a protein that is present only on
cancer cells. "With this discovery, I realized there was a potential for
therapeutic uses. I decided to use this approach against cancer cells, and it
actually worked," Levy said. Together with Richard Miller, MD, then a fellow in
oncology and now an adjunct clinical professor of oncology at Stanford, and
David Maloney, MD, PhD, then a Stanford medical student and now a professor of
oncology at the University of Washington, Levy injected monoclonal antibodies
made from mouse hybridoma cells into humans, and those monoclonal antibodies
eliminated the cancer cells but not normal cells. 

In 1981, Levy and his team cured their first patient, and four years later they
started a company, called IDEC Pharmaceuticals, initially to make custom
antibodies for each patient. The team soon realized that customizing monoclonal
antibodies for each patient was too technically challenging, slow and expensive.
That`s when they started to work on what eventually became Rituxan. 

To celebrate his research achievement, Levy will travel to Riyadh to receive a
certificate written in Arabic calligraphy describing his work, a commemorative
24-carat, 200-gram gold medallion and $200,000. In his speech, he will recount
the nature of his work and its impact. He will also emphasize that cancer is a
universal problem and the solution crosses boundaries of cultural, national,
ethnic and religious identity. "The problem of cancer has not been solved. That
will require a lot more hard work involving international collaborations," said

Although Levy has received numerous honors and awards, from being a member of
the National Academy of Sciences to receiving the Medal of Honor from the
American Cancer Society, he recognized the uniqueness of the Faisal Prize. "It
transcends beyond science and medicine alone. It has a cross-cultural aspect,
and it offers a special opportunity to make an impact beyond science." 

Levy`s current research focuses on developing vaccines to treat cancer. "A
vaccine would teach the immune system to launch its own battle on cancer. The
advantage of the vaccine is that you`d only have to administer it once, and it
includes a complex mixture that will trigger a multifaceted response all at
once," he said. 

"We have not come as far as we would like; we have a lot further to go," he
said. "The immune system is very powerful, and I would like to harness even more
power from it. But that`s only one approach. I would like to combine it with
other approaches, some yet to be discovered-that`s the exciting part." 

Stanford University Medical Center integrates research, medical education and
patient care at its three institutions - Stanford University School of Medicine,
Stanford Hospital & Clinics and Lucile Packard Children`s Hospital at Stanford.
For more information, please visit the Web site of the medical center`s Office
of Communication & Public Affairs at

NOTE TO REPORTERS: A high-resolution photo of Ronald Levy is available for
download at

Stanford University Medical Center
Rosanne Spector, 650-725-5374
M.A. Malone, 650-723-6912

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