A Cancer Pioneer

The New York Times profiles a Harvard Medical School lecturer's quest for a miracle drug that saves lives—and the lives lost along the way.

The New York Times put a very human face on the hunt for new, more effective cancer drugs in its "Target Cancer" series last week. The doctor they featured, Keith Flaherty, is an oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and a lecturer on medicine at Harvard Medical School.

The three-part series explores the debate over the most promising route to a cancer cure—targeted therapy, the subject of Flaherty's research, or immunotherapy, which seeks to leverage the immune system against cancer. The series examines the difficulty of balancing a desire for quick action to help sick patients with the need for caution when using unproven medicines—a situation complicated still more by competition among the pharmaceutical companies that want to make sure they earn back the significant capital they have invested in bringing these important drugs to market.

Author Amy Harmon's narrative takes readers along with Flaherty on a roller-coaster ride, as time runs out for some patients while startling successes come elsewhere. Harmon interweaves the stories of Flaherty—who started developing his approach to cancer during his residency at Brigham and Women's Hospital in the 1990s, and returned to Boston last year to take the MGH position—and the patients he treats, painting a picture of what motivates Flaherty to keep going despite having had to make, over the years, what has seemed like "an endless series of condolence calls that never became routine."

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