Michael Becker, former biotech CEO who raised awareness of HPV, dies

After being in financial services and then investing in the biotech industry, Michael Becker reveled in the idea of being in a position to help diagnose and cure diseases. The former CEO of Cytogen and its subsidiary AxCell Biosciences was involved with launching and in-licensing drugs such as the oral mucositis and xerostomia medicine Caphosol.

Then he was diagnosed with head and neck cancer that spread to his lungs. He spent the rest of his life raising awareness of the cancer that would eventually kill him, as reported by Amirah Al Idrus in Fierce Biotech. The battle ended this week.

Becker said in his blog, “Aside from the fact that I find writing cathartic, one purpose for this blog is to keep family and friends updated following my diagnosis with Stage IV oropharyngeal cancer in December 2015. An additional benefit is that some of the content may be a helpful resource for others dealing with head/neck cancer. Lastly, I hope that by sharing this experience freely, I can help create greater awareness for HPV and its link to six cancers with the hope that preteen vaccination rates improve.”

Gardasil is a vaccine for human papillomavirus, or HPV, that causes various cancers. Gardasil and its follow-up vaccine, Gardasil 9, are designed to protect people against multiple strains of HPV that can cause vulvar and cervical cancers in women and anal cancer in both sexes. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), there are more than 42,000 new cases of HPV-linked cancers annually. Studies have demonstrated that Gardasil can be effective against head and neck cancers as well.

Gardasil can be administered to children as young as nine. It was first approved for adults up to 26. In 2018, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said the drug could be used in adults up to 45. Because people associate it with sex and cervical cancer prevention, it has not been used widely. In 2018 a study revealed that more men and boys were getting the Gardasil vaccine in 2016 than in 2011 (27 versus 8 percent), but that was not optimal. Becker was “frustrated” that 60 percent of boys were not getting all doses of Gardasil, which might be able to prevent head and neck cancer as well as other forms of the disease.

While he participated in a clinical trial, Becker had “excruciating” side effects. One of his lungs filled with fluid and needed to be drained. Then he had chemotherapy, which reduced his tumors before it stopped being effective. He wrote about his experience in a book, A Walk with Purpose, and on his blog, attempting to increase awareness of HPV’s relationship to multiple cancers and trying to accelerate the use of HPV vaccination in adolescents.


While he did not get to develop a blockbuster drug as a biotech CEO, his legacy as an advocate may end up making a real difference. As he was losing his battle with cancer, England’s National Health Service determined that it would increase its HPV vaccination scheme in September to include all boys in grade 8, as is the case in Scotland and Wales. Maybe it will happen worldwide.


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