From biotech CEO to 'expert patient': HPV awareness advocate Michael Becker dies

Becker told Forbes last year that he was “frustrated” that 60% of boys don’t get all doses of Gardasil, which could ward off the cancer he was diagnosed with in 2015. (Michael Becker)

Michael Becker, the former biotech CEO who spent his life working on new drugs and then turned to raising awareness of the cancer that would eventually kill him, has died of head and neck cancer that had spread to his lungs. 

Amid the occasional repugnance of BioTwitter, where ugly slanging matches play out in public fashion as egos battle for control, Becker was its spiritual leader, quietly and bravely battling a terminal illness and using his remaining years to bring attention to a cancer that can affect men as well as women, and the importance of vaccination. 

The cancer was head and neck cancer and the vaccine is Gardasil for human papillomavirus, or HPV, which is known to cause various cancers. Gardasil and its follow-up, Gardasil 9, protect against multiple strains of HPV that can lead to cervical, vulvar and cervical cancers in women and anal cancer in both sexes. The CDC estimates that more than 42,000 new HPV-linked cancers occur each year.

Over the years, studies have shown that Gardasil may protect against head and neck cancers, too.

The vaccine can be given to children as young as nine and was initially approved for adults up to 26. In 2018, the FDA expanded its label to include adults up to 45 years of age. But its uptake has been rocky, thanks to its association with sex and the view that it is primarily a guard against cervical cancer. A 2018 study showed that more men and boys were getting Gardasil in 2016 than in 2011—27% versus 8%—but that the rate still lagged the ideal.

Becker told Forbes last year that he was “frustrated” that 60% of boys don’t get all doses of Gardasil, which could ward off the cancer he was diagnosed with in 2015—at stage 4. 

He found his way into a clinical trial, but faced “excruciating” side effects, as one of his lungs filled with fluid and needed to be drained, Forbes wrote. After that, he tried chemotherapy, which shrank his tumors, but it eventually stopped working and he chose to stop treatment. 

"I've already been through three very difficult therapies and prefer the quality of life over quantity of life," he told Forbes. 

He chronicled his journey in a book, A Walk With Purpose, and on his blog, working to raise awareness of HPV’s link to multiple cancers and hoping to boost the rate of HPV vaccination in adolescents. 

“I’m so thankful to have known @Becker_MichaelD,” said Brad Loncar, CEO of Loncar Investments, in a tweet Wednesday morning. “There’s a saying in sports that the best players leave everything on the field. That’s how Michael was with HPV & cancer awareness, and showing us what life is all about. He lived his last years to the fullest.” 

Becker started his career in the financial services industry, finding his way to biotech by first investing in the space. It was an opportunity to help make money for a client while also supporting work toward curing and diagnosing diseases. 

“I thought that’s got to be the best thing in the world,” he told Forbes. 

“Then I became the CEO of a biotech company, I said, 'well, that’s the best thing in the world because I’m actually influencing the development and treatment of various diseases,'” he said. 

Though he never got a drug all the way through, the former CEO of Cytogen and its subsidiary AxCell Biosciences, had “plenty of positive experiences with launching drugs or in-licensing something.” That includes the oral mucositis and xerostomia med Caphosol. 

“There are CEOs that very rightly so can sit back and go, ‘I made a truly tangible impact on this patient population,’ and I miss not having that claim to fame,” he said. 

But Becker’s claim to fame may just turn out to be different than what he initially set out to do. Just this week, England’s National Health Service announced it would expand its HPV vaccination scheme in September to include all boys in school year 8, following the example of Scotland and Wales.