Not good enough: behind the drive to give cancer patients more time

Two R&D leaders discuss AbbVie’s approach to develop solid tumor treatments.

Are we in the golden era of cancer research?

It’s no secret that cancer is incredibly difficult to treat, much less cure. According to a study analyzing FDA approvals of new cancer drugs between 2003 and 2021, these medicines only marginally extended patient survival with a median increase of less than 3 months.1 While some progress has been made, in many tumor types the impact on overall survival has been historically low.

Elissa Canfield, oncology clinical program development lead, AbbVie, remembers her life changing in an instant when her 46-year-old husband Bill was diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer.

“I was a young mom with a 3 ½-month-old baby. It all started with my husband developing a cold that wouldn’t go away,” she says. Days later she was in the emergency room receiving the news. What doctors initially thought was pneumonia turned out to be a mass on Bill’s lung, as well as the liver and spine. Her seemingly healthy husband passed away less than four months after that visit.

“When my husband was diagnosed there weren’t biomarker tests and genetic mutations or targeted therapies, that type of work was just starting,” Elissa recalls. “They treated everyone the same and the prognosis was the same.”

Now, just a few years later, the field is seeing a transformation in how some cancers can be treated. The ability to cure seems more feasible with each new discovery. New technologies, a greater understanding of the drivers of tumor behavior, and the outcomes of years of scientific research have led to what many call a “golden era of cancer research.”

Targeted therapies directed at biomarkers and immunotherapies harnessing the body’s own immune system to recognize and destroy the cancer, have paved the way for new medicines that are extending survival with certain tumors. For example, five-year survival rates for leukemia have more than doubled, from 34 percent in the mid-1970s to 69 percent for 2012 to 2018, according to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.2

Still, with many types of cancer – especially solid tumors – the picture is less optimistic.

* All survival rates are 1L metastatic.
SEER Cancer Data Base; ONCrg.3

In addition to low survival rates, the treatment itself can often feel worse than the disease. Chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, and the accompanying side effects are still hallmarks of cancer treatment – impacting patients, their families and the quality of time that may already be limited.

AbbVie’s solid tumor oncology team is looking to change the narrative, with their sights set on transforming outcomes for patients, including the goal of finding a cure. Two leaders of the team sat down to share more about their approach, their progress, and their passion for giving patients more time.

Daejin Abidoye, M.D.
vice president, head of solid tumors, oncology development, AbbVie

Pedro Valencia, Ph.D.
vice president, solid tumor pipeline strategy and execution, AbbVie

Q: How would you describe AbbVie’s approach to solid tumor research?

We’ve been investing in solid tumors for many years and we’ve developed a number of platforms, technologies and molecules. In addition to advancing these novel approaches, we’re specifically focused on tumor types where progress has been slow, the need is great and there’s potential for transformational efficacy – such as lung and colorectal cancer.

It’s a very comprehensive pipeline because it’s focused on the core technologies that we’re seeing work today in the cancer treatment landscape. At the center of our approach are antibody drug conjugate (ADC) technologies and immunotherapies. To date, in late stage, we have four molecules: two ADCs and two immunotherapy. We’ve also received breakthrough therapy designation which allows us to further accelerate development.

Q: What is c-Met and how is AbbVie addressing this target?

In several types of cancer, the c-Met protein is overexpressed and promotes tumor growth. C-Met is located on the surface of cancer cells, which makes it an attractive therapeutic target. For example, in non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) c-Met overexpression accounts for almost 25% of patients.4 Our goal is to selectively target and destroy cancer cells with c-Met overexpression and deliver transformative, targeted therapies to patients.

We’re evaluating this target using ADCs, which is a specialized targeted cancer treatment designed to deliver a cancer killing drug directly into cancer cells. ADCs combine the specificity of a monoclonal antibody, which targets cancer cells by recognizing and binding to unique markers on their surface, linked to a cytotoxic drug payload. Once bound to the cancer cell, the ADC is internalized and broken down, releasing the drug and killing the cancer cell from within.

Q: What’s AbbVie’s approach to immunotherapy?

Our aim in immunotherapy is to target the tumor microenvironment and improve the effect of the immune system on cancer cells. In an ideal world, your immune system is designed not only to fight against infectious diseases, but also to manage and treat cancer. Cancer finds ways to hijack those natural mechanisms so that it can survive beyond the immune system. Immunotherapy targets the pathways that the cancer takes, mobilizing your own immune system to recognize and destroy the cancer where it is.

Q: How do you navigate the challenges of developing effective cancer medicines, especially considering the slow pace of progress across the industry?

Beyond having incredible science, we also have to take a unique approach to how we do our work. We’re focused on four principles. One is speed. We need to go fast for patients. Two, we’re also driving agility. We must pivot as soon as we get data since the technology is moving rapidly. Three, we need to be bold and make sure we are creating novel ideas. And last, but not least, we are focused. We need to think night and day about delivering value to patients.


What drives me every day to do what I do are the people we serve, which are patients. This extends beyond my background as a physician. We all have either had a family member, a friend, or know of someone who has been affected by cancer. And what drives me is recognizing that the work we do can bring benefit and change the lives of people who are affected by cancer. We want to not only find new treatment options but ultimately our goal is to find a cure.

On my office wall is a picture that reminds me of my dad. He passed away from cancer. I cannot wait to find a way to give hope for cancer patients like my father and extend survival for them. That’s why we’re here.


  2. SEER (Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results) Cancer Statistics Review, 1975-77; National Cancer Institute; 2020
  3. SEER Cancer Data Base; ONCrg.
  4. Bubendorf L, Dafni U, Schobel M, et al. Prevalence and clinical association of MET gene overexpression and amplification in patients with NSCLC: Results from the European Thoracic Oncology Platform (ETOP) Lungscape project. Lung Cancer. 2017;111:143-9.

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