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‘Sympathy for the devil’ by Gary Acton

Fascinating insight into the world of cancer biotechnology.


Gary Acton is an oncologist with extensive experience of cancer drug development. Until recently he was the chief medical officer of Antisoma Research Ltd, a UK-based biotechnology company.

‘Sympathy for the devil’ is a paperback of almost 600 pages, including notes and references. It includes a readable account of the development of cancer therapy over the past 150 years. However, this is not a straightforward, textbook chronicle. Woven into it is Acton’s own personal experience of Antisoma’s engagement with a system where such companies need “the luck of the devil to survive … and a similar set of ethics comes in handy, too”.

Antisoma had a portfolio of experimental drugs and Acton makes clear his anger and frustration as the company struggles to survive while seeking approval for them. He rails against the lack of appreciation of biotechnology companies and an increasingly unpredictable drug approval system.

Acton describes each stage of the approval process from organising drug trials in many locations around the world, choosing patients and suitable endpoints and the costly (in effort and money) regulatory work that follows. The tortuous route taken by Avastin (bevacizumab) while seeking approval in the US for use in treating breast cancer is just one of many examples of the way Acton feels the working methods of the regulatory bodies make it so hard to predict the future of a new cancer drug.

Acton has a dramatic writing style which often makes ‘Sympathy for the devil’ read like a novel rather than a factual account. However, despite the emotive, sometimes repetitive language, this book is worth reading because it provides a fascinating insight into the world of cancer biotechnology while revealing some disturbing implications for the one in three of us who are likely to require treatment for cancer.


Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2014.20065530

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