Every day at Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center, we cancer specialists and researchers make decisions and recommendations based on facts we don’t like. A patient’s cancer has recurred. A treatment is not working. The patient lacks the gene that would make them eligible for a promising clinical trial. A highly promising research grant is not funded. We can’t ignore the bad news. Instead, we accept it, and do our best despite the bad news.
I am a bit of an astronomy buff. When my kids were younger, I had an eight inch reflecting telescope I would set up in the backyard. My kids and I would invite other families in the neighborhood to look at the night sky. I recall one evening, we talked about the night sky while I was setting up. The constellation Orion was particularly beautiful that evening. We discussed about how the stars that make up Orion’s belt, legs, shoulders and sword, tell us a story we would not understand if we just looked through the telescope at each star separately. We still wanted to look through the telescope (Orion’s sword was particularly interesting), but looking at the constellation as a whole told us an additional story. The whole was greater than the parts.
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.
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.
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 am writing this on a weekend morning. It is really cold outside, and there is nothing on my calendar for a few hours. Instead of doing something productive, I find myself curled up on the couch in front of the fireplace surfing the web on my laptop. I am having no trouble finding totally useless but entertaining sites – a few thoughtful, some silly, and all too many outrageous. I know this is keeping me from more important projects (such as getting our family photos in order or writing a cancer research grant) but I am having a hard time focusing. My wife, who has experienced my channel flicking when I have the TV remote, knows this side of me all too well.
I spent time during my education and training at The Ohio State and the University of Michigan before arriving in Iowa City 25 years ago. I have close family members with ties to essentially all the other Big 10 schools. This time of year, we discuss the past season and bowl games, and argue about whose football team is overrated or underrated. When you are connected with a Big 10 school, you hear a lot about football. Collaborative cancer research is generally not part of the Big 10 discussion. However, we are working to change that.
When I give a talk about cancer research, I like to highlight both the diversity of cancer research and that it is a continuum. One way to do this is by showing a scale that, going from smallest to largest, includes cancer research focused at the level of molecules, cells, tissues, organs, patients, clinical trials, cohorts, and communities. Much cancer research spans various points on this scale. I can take any two points on this scale, and talk about an important research project at Holden based on those two points. For example, molecular epidemiology involves taking samples from a large number of individuals in a group of cancer patients and evaluating them at the molecular level in order to improve our ability to predict how specific changes in genes might impact an outcome. Identifying new cancer drugs requires we screen large numbers of compounds to see which have the most promising effects on cancer cells, then after appropriate testing in the laboratory, assess the effects of these new drugs on patients in a clinical trial. Continue reading