The Gift from "Little Pearl Harbor"

Sometimes medical revolutions happen under the most unlikely circumstances…

On Dec. 2, 1943, a surprise air raid on the Allied-controlled port of Bari, Italy, was so successful as to receive the name “Little Pearl Harbor.” Among the ships damaged by aerial bombardment were the SS John Harvey and its load of chemical weapons. Fires set off by exploding bombs released tons of deadly chemical warfare agents into the air and water around Bari, exposing thousands of people and producing hundreds of casualties.

You see, in late 1943, Allied forces had just secured military control of southern Italy in a strategy designed to open a new front against the Axis cancer in the “soft underbelly of Europe.” The tide of war was turning, but the outcome was yet far from certain.

Furthermore, a disturbing fact was known to the Allies. Nations on both sides of the war had signed the Geneva Protocol against the use of chemical weapons. Nazi Germany had, however, developed a large stockpile of potent chemical weapons. If Hitler chose to use them in desperation, the results could be dire. Thoughts of a Luftwaffe raid dropping nerve gas bombs above London’s skies loomed large in the minds of military planners.

Allied powers, therefore, produced chemical weapons of their own as a deterrent against any possible Axis use. Behind the scenes, they also began to move them into the battle space…just in case.

Secretly, the SS John Harvey, a cargo ship loaded with thousands chemical warfare bombs, arrived in the newly captured Italian port of Bari. Located in the south end of the peninsula, Bari had become a major logistical hub for Allies in the Italian campaign.

However, since the Axis air forces were considered to be too thinly stretched to be much of a threat, the port was only lightly defended against aerial attack.

This proved to be a critical miscalculation.

From “Little Pearl Harbor,” however, an opportunity emerged. The US Department of Defense had recently initiated research of possible therapeutic applications for chemical weapon agents. Shortly after the disaster, the US dispatched medical experts to investigate the effects of mustard gas on humans.

A study of the aftermath showed that mustard gas suppressed rapidly dividing cell lines responsible for producing blood cells. Yale University researchers later demonstrated that the chemical agents dispersed by the Bari raid could also be used to suppress rapidly dividing cancer cell lines. Chemical agents were to open up a new front in a new war — attacking cancer’s soft underbelly.

With a boom, the chemotherapy revolution had begun. Since the discovery at Bari, chemo drugs have become the mainstay in the fight against cancer.

While chemo is old news as far as medical technology goes, it’s still a tough technology to improve upon — even with the latest wonder drugs.

Many biotechnology companies use proprietary technological platforms to move new cancer therapies into market. Some companies, however, use a different approach. They focus on acquiring overlooked yet promising oncology compounds pioneered by others.

The advantage of this approach is that by the time an acquisition is made, a lot of the early work on a compound has already been done. Unlike a biotechnology company developing a new therapeutic platform, a company using existing compounds doesn’t necessarily have to wait a decade or more before seeing revenues.

A smart acquisition that can be commercialized quickly can start generating sales in a fraction of the time…

And that is what is happening today. Take pancreatic cancer for example.

Pancreatic cancer is the deadliest of cancers. Although pancreatic cancer is not among the most common cancer types, its high mortality rate still makes it the fourth-biggest killer overall. Only 6% of people diagnosed with metastatic pancreatic cancer survive to the five-year mark, and the average life expectancy is only about six months.

Today, the leading drug for treating pancreatic cancer is the chemotherapy compound gemcitabine. But it turns out that gemcitabine — or compounds containing it — can be effective against other cancers as well.


Ray Blanco,
for The Daily Reckoning