Saudi Arabian foundation presents Faisal Prize to Levy

Karen Levy

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz (center) awards Ronald Levy the King Faisal International Prize in Medicine at the March 29 ceremony that was televised nationally and attended by some 1,500 dignitaries.

Ronald Levy, MD, last month traveled across the globe to accept a prize for his development of a revolutionary cancer drug from a nation not usually associated with scientific research. He was accepting the 2009 King Faisal International Prize in Medicine in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

At the March 29 ceremony, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah shook Levy's hand and presented him with his most prestigious international award to date, during an elegant ceremony attended by five other awardees, 1,500 guests, including royalty and leading scientists. Each year, the King Faisal Foundation, a philanthropic organization founded by the eight sons of the late King Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, presents prizes for service to Islam and Islamic studies, and also for accomplishments in science and in medicine, underscoring the desert kingdom's commitment to advancing research.

Levy, professor and chief of oncology at the medical school, received a certificate written in Arabic calligraphy describing his work, a commemorative 24-carat, 200-gram gold medallion and $200,000. In his speech, he recounted the nature of his work and its impact, while also emphasizing that cancer is a universal problem, with the effort to find solutions crossing boundaries of cultural, national, ethnic and religious identity. "The problem of cancer has not been solved. That will require a lot more hard work involving international collaborations," Levy said in an interview before his trip.

Although Levy has received numerous honors and awards, from being a member of the National Academy of Sciences to receiving the Medal of Honor from the American Cancer Society, he recognized the uniqueness of the Faisal Prize. "It transcends beyond science and medicine alone. It has a cross-cultural aspect, and it offers a special opportunity to make an impact beyond science."

The work that brought Levy to Riyadh began more than 30 years ago, when he embarked on a research agenda that harnessed the power of the body's own immune system to fight cancer. Levy developed the concept that a drug made from a naturally produced blood protein called an antibody could be a cancer-fighting machine.

Rituxan, the drug that resulted from Levy's work, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1997, making it the first commercial antibody to treat cancer. "Now it's recommended for treating almost every lymphoma patient, and over 1 million people have been treated with it so far," he said.

According to Levy, when combined with other drugs and radiotherapy, Rituxan is successful at reducing tumor size in most patients who are treated. Originally developed for the treatment of lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system, this class of drug is now part of the standard treatment for a wide range of cancers, including cancer of the breast, colon and lungs. "Monoclonal antibodies have transformed the way cancer is treated," said Levy, who is a member of the Stanford Cancer Center and the Robert K. and Helen K. Summy Professor.

Levy's efforts have focused on treating lymphoma. Forming the backbone of the immune system are B lymphocytes—white blood cells that sound the alarm in response to foreign invaders. When a pathogen enters the body, B cells produce antibodies, proteins that circulate throughout the bloodstream and mark pathogens for destruction. In lymphoma, these B cells multiply uncontrollably, eventually crowding out healthy cells.

Rituxan targets a protein, called CD20, found on the surface of normal B cells and present in many lymphoma tumors. The prevalence of CD20 makes the drug relatively economical: it is not necessary to concoct a custom-made antibody for each patient. Although Rituxan targets normal B lymphocytes in addition to the tumor cells, it causes fewer side effects than conventional cancer treatments. Surprisingly, the drug results in no permanent damage to the immune system.

Philip Pizzo, MD, dean of the School of Medicine, nominated Levy for the award. "Dr. Ron Levy is one of the most remarkable and accomplished physician-scientists in the world," said Pizzo. "He and his colleagues have virtually transformed our knowledge about tumor immunology and cancer biology, and his research has resulted in dramatic improvements in the treatment and survival of patients with lymphoma."

Levy recalled that Pizzo had asked for his permission before nominating him, and that he had not expected to be chosen. A number of months passed, and then he received the surprise. "By the time I found out, my picture was already on the foundation's Web site," he said.

At the ceremony, Levy tried to squelch a case of pre-speech jitters as he sat on the stage with the other awardees, looking out at the sea of men in white robes and red-and-white-checkered headdresses. Huge portraits of the succession of Saudi kings hung on the walls. (Women sat at a few tables at the edge of the room, admitted to the ceremony this year for the first time, Levy was told.)

But as he listened to the preliminary speeches, translated through a headset, Levy relaxed. "I realized it wasn't really my delivery of the speech that mattered, but the delivery of the translator, since that's what most people would be listening to—at least that's what I told myself. That took some pressure off."

The ceremony, which was televised nationally, was a major event for the whole country. "Through the stay, people kept saying they saw me on TV." Levy said. "Strangers would come up in restaurants, shake my hand and they'd want their picture taken with me. We were celebrities."

Levy made the trip with his wife, Stanford oncology professor Shoshana Levy, PhD, and their three daughters. "We didn't know what to expect," said Levy, whose family had never before been in Saudi Arabia. "We were offered the most amazing hospitality and graciousness, and a whole host of opportunities for social and cultural interaction." Levy gave a grand rounds talk to a packed audience at the King Faisal Specialist and Research Center, and toured the state-of-the-art hospital. And the family saw the bustling city, with chauffeur-driven cars and high-end shops in abundance. "It feels like Las Vegas in boom time, without the gambling and alcohol," he said.

"What I came away feeling was the Saudis are very concerned about how they're perceived by the Western world," said Levy. "They think of themselves as leaders of the Arab world because of Mecca—they are custodians of that site. They have traditions they don't want to dilute, but they want to be world players in science and technology and world influence."

Janelle Weaver is a former science-writing intern in the medical school's Office of Communication & Public Affairs. Writer Rosanne Spector contributed additional reporting to the article.