Rebels with a cause
Andrew Petros and Phil Hajduk are rebels, but you might not know it to look at them.
As researchers who spent their careers – 29 years and 19 years, respectively – developing medicines at AbbVie, they were trained to follow the rules and principles of science: ideas that are known to be true, until someone finds a way to prove them wrong.
But while science takes discipline, it also takes the ability to see where rules need to be challenged – or even broken – on the path to pioneering research. If Petros, Hajduk and their colleagues stuck to conventional scientific wisdom, they likely would have failed in their quest to find a way to force cancer cells to die.
Rule #1: cancer cells don’t die
Back in the early 1990s, Petros and Hajduk were both discovery scientists at AbbVie (then Abbott) focused on understanding apoptosis, or programmed cell death, and mapping structures of the proteins known to be important to this cellular process.
Cancer cells differ from healthy cells in several ways; key among them is their ability to avoid death. All cells in the body are programmed to self-destruct at pre-determined times – when they get old, when their function is compromised or when they are no longer needed. This function is short-circuited in cancer cells, and without the ability to die, they continue to grow uncontrolled.
This resistance to death was a well-known hallmark of cancer cells. What to do about it, though, remained a mystery.
The AbbVie team had a theory that by finding a treatment that targeted proteins known to be important in the apoptotic process, they might be able to reset the cell-death process and induce the diseased cells to commit suicide.
But like all uncharted areas of research, their work brought more questions than answers. Conventional wisdom in drug discovery might have discouraged the scientists from pursuing this path of research.
Instead of backing down, the team waded into the unknown and disproved some widely held scientific beliefs in the process.