UMass alum presents breakthrough in cancer research

By Brianna Corcoran

The development of antibodies may be a successful way to determine causes and treatment for cancer, explained Michael Comb, a University of Massachusetts alum, at a lecture yesterday.

Comb spoke as part of the Eleanor Bateman Alumni Scholar lecture series. He is the CEO of Cell Signaling Technology (CST), where his current research creates innovative tools used to help understand cell function and disease. The development of using antibodies has helped in locating cancerous cells and expanded knowledge of cell signaling pathways.

In the treatment of lung cancer, Comb’s company has been the most successful. He said the trial for the drug Xalkori, a type of medicine used to treat lung cancer, had one of the greatest trials ever for a cancer drug because of the use of the antibody tools his company created.

Comb said that by seeing all the cell pathways with the antibodies, it allows doctors to see which pathways are actively causing cell mutations and abnormal growths. This allows doctors to recognize the molecules that are broken and allows them to easily decide what medicine and treatment should be used, said Comb.

“We had some of the most amazing results from those [Xalkori] therapies and trials,” said Comb. “Some patients who were previously sent to die at home responded miraculously to the drug.”

According to Comb, when cell pathways become defected, it can create abnormal cell growth. This abnormal cell growth is what causes cancer.

He believes that by concentrating on the cause of cancer in patients individually and developing drugs that are tailored to the specific needs of the patients will result in more successful recoveries.

The drug Xalkori costs about $100,000 a year and was approved in 2011, said Comb. He said the large value of the drug can be attributed to the small amounts of patients qualifying for the trial. He believes drug companies must charge this price “to make it worth their while.”

Comb graduated from UMass in 1976 with a degree in chemistry. While at UMass, he participated in the Outing Club and credits his participation as the beginning of his love for rock climbing and hiking. Comb said he dabbled in many different areas of science and struggled in chemistry at the beginning, especially in Chemistry 111.

“I somehow persevered and somehow became a chemistry major,” said Comb.

After UMass, Comb went on to get a doctoral degree at the University of Oregon. From there, he worked at the Massachusetts General Hospital as the director of the Laboratory of Molecular Neurobiology. He also was an associate professor of neuroscience at Harvard Medical School before founding CST. Before his lecture, Comb was awarded the Eleanor Bateman Alumni Scholar Award by Chancellor Robert Holub.

Brianna Corcoran can be reached at [email protected]