I just returned from one of my favorite meetings of the year, the annual American Society of Hematology (ASH) meeting that I have attended almost every year since becoming a cancer researcher in the late 1980s. At the ASH annual meeting, research and clinical advances in blood cancers and other blood disorders are presented and discussed by scientists and physicians. Several presentations at this year’s meeting led me to think about my first ASH meetings.
We are in a remarkable time in cancer medicine. The investment in cancer research over the past several decades has helped us in our understanding of the biology of malignant cells, and how such cells interact with their microenvironment, especially the immune system. We have learned that cancer is more complex at the molecular level more than we ever imagined.
About a year ago, I blogged about “going to the moon” as a metaphor for cancer research. More recently, the phrase “cancer moonshot” has taken on new meaning. In his state-of-the-union address, President Obama charged Vice President Biden with refocusing the nation’s effort on cancer and cancer research. To quote the President – “Vice President Biden said that with a new moonshot, America can cure cancer… I’m putting Joe in charge of Mission Control.” The cancer research community was already energized by the amazing potential for cancer research to reduce the pain and suffering caused by cancer at this particularly point in time, and welcomed the renewed focus on cancer research. Nevertheless, there was also a degree of skepticism. Many wondered whether the “cancer moonshot” was another example of politicians over-simplifying the incredible challenge of cancer in the short term. They worried that the result would be raised expectations without significant change or meaningful acceleration of progress in the long term.
It has been a while since I submitted a blog entry, and one of my New Year’s resolutions is that I will get back to posting entries more regularly. I thought I would start with a summary of the past year in the field of cancer in general and the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center in particular.
I spent an evening last week doing two things that, at first, I thought were unrelated.
First, I viewed a preview of “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies,” a PBS documentary based on the book by Siddhartha Mukherjee. His preview was sponsored by the Iowa Cancer Consortium, The American Cancer Society, The Iowa Department of Public Health and Iowa Public Television. It included excerpts from the 3 part PBS documentary by producer Ken Burns that starts tonight, March 30 and runs through Wednesday, April 1. The preview was followed by a panel discussion. My fellow panelists and I made brief statements, and then entertained a range of outstanding questions from the audience.
This week, instead of a written blog, I will refer you to a radio interview I did with Ben Kiefer on Iowa Public Radio talking about the state of cancer in Iowa.
You can listen at: bit.ly/1EVWME9
Dr. Laura Rogers, a post-doc in my research lab, likes to start her presentations during our weekly research laboratory meetings with a quote. One she used a few months back was from Thomas Huxley, a renowned British biologist from the 1800s, who said, “The great tragedy of science – the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.” It was a very appropriate quote for Laura to use given the results we were discussing that day.
As Huxley’s quote illustrates, Laura wasn’t the first scientist to see a beautiful hypothesis slain by an ugly fact, and she will not be the last.
Last week, I had the honor of moderating a panel discussion on Capitol Hill on behalf of the Association of American Cancer Institutes and the American Association for Cancer Research. This panel was sponsored by the congressional cancer caucus and focused on the importance of the nation’s premier cancer research centers. In such settings, it can be challenging to talk about the vital importance of the work done at our cancer centers in a way that highlights the hope without appearing to be resorting to hype.
Environmental biologists have studied it for years – cancer biologists are just starting to think about it – and it has the potential to result in a fundamental change in our understanding of cancer. I am talking about ecosystems.
We all learned in elementary school that diversity helps an ecosystem thrive. Bees need flowers so they can make honey from the nectar. Flowers need bees for pollination. Neither would be able to exist without each other.
How does this concept apply to cancer? Our traditional view of cancer is that cancer cells within a tumor are the same. One cell starts growing out of control, pushes out the normal cells, and the result is cancer. Indeed, we talk about cancer as being “monoclonal,” i.e. all cells being the same. A major goal of cancer research over the past decade has been to understand the changes in genes that drive the monoclonal growth of cancer cells. In some cases, such as chronic myelogenous leukemia and some cases of melanoma, we have identified the gene that causes the cancer to behave badly, and have been able to treat the cancer successfully by targeting the product of the rogue gene.
I have always been, and probably will always be, a science nerd.
I look forward every month to receiving my issue of Scientific American (yes, I still get a hard copy), and often read it cover to cover. I enjoy learning about scientific advances, and scientific controversies, in other fields.
Being a scientific nerd runs in the family. My older son is pursuing theater as a career, but is an avid science reader and has an amazing depth and breadth of scientific understanding. When he is on stage playing a scientist, he is not just reading lines, he really knows what he is talking about. My daughter is finishing medical school this year. Professionally, she is surrounded by the science of medicine, but also has a growing menagerie of fresh water and salt water creatures growing in her aquaria at home. Care for her miniature coral reef and axolotl (a primitive amphibian native to Mexican lakes) has required that she acquire some knowledge of marine biology. My younger son is a wild-land firefighter who received a master’s degree studying the burning properties of duff (the stuff that accumulates on the ground around a tree in the forest). It was great fun reading the fire science posters on the walls at the University of Idaho when he was studying there.