Making Science Count: A Conversation with Ken Anderson

When Ken Anderson, MD, began working on multiple myeloma four decades ago, the disease, a cancer of the bone marrow, was untreatable. “People died within months,” says Anderson.

Today, the story is very different. In the past decade, eight new multiple myeloma treatments have been approved. Survival has doubled. “When we see new patients, we can look them in the eye and say it’s likely you will live a decade or longer with modern therapies,” says Anderson, who recently received a 2012 Medal of Honor award from the American Cancer Society for his contributions to these advancements. “And that’s continuing to improve.”

Kenneth C. Anderson, MD, is Director of the Jerome Lipper Multiple Myeloma Center and LeBow Institute for Myeloma Therapeutics and Kraft Family Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School

Throughout his 40 years of research, Anderson has taken a bench-to-bedside approach that is unwaveringly patient-centered. To really understand multiple myeloma, Anderson has found ways to study tumor cells in models that mimic the way tumors grow in patients. With every discovery, he has worked to bring that new understanding to devise new treatments, such as the development of a proteasome inhibitor that attacks tumor cells and drugs that target immune cells that support tumor growth.

“The inspiration for everything I do is our patients,” says Anderson. That inspiration stems back to one of Anderson’s very first teachers in medical school, Richard Humphrey, who specialized in multiple myeloma. “He taught me two lessons. First, make science count for patients,” says Anderson. “Second, treat patients as family.”

Anderson has stayed true to these lessons Throughout his career, his research into the myeloma tumor microenvironment has helped researchers understand the biological mechanisms that allow tumor cells to grow and resist drugs. It has also helped pinpoint targets for new drugs that specifically shut down growth and overcome drug resistance.

Importantly, says Anderson, the new targeted treatments are much less taxing on patients than conventional therapies, so that patients not only survive longer but they also enjoy a high quality of life. “I could have never imagined when I started that the benefits of translational medicine could be so great. That you could actually go from a new discovery to a new medicine that would really change the natural history of the disease forever,” says Anderson. “You can see it firsthand in the patients. They are living longer, appreciating milestones in life. It’s really quite overwhelming in terms of its rewards.”