Just steps away from our office, some of the great scientific minds of our time are working diligently to investigate cancer in all of its forms. Yesterday morning, several of the those scientists gathered in the Rotunda of the Low Library on Columbia University’s Morningside campus to take part in a panel discussion on the future of cancer research. The media event was held to mark the national broadcast of the Ken Burns-produced documentary Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies, which is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Columbia researcher Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee.
Dr. Mukherjee was on the panel, as was Dr. Andrew Kung, the Director of the Division of Pediatric Hematology, Oncology & Stem Cell Transplantation at Columbia University Medical Center and a Hope & Heroes Board Member. The morning began with opening remarks from Katie Couric speaking candidly of her own personal experience with cancer before introducing Ken Burns, who called the story of cancer “the greatest detective story ever.”
The panel discussion was fast-moving and inspiring. Dr. Mukherjee noted that his work has moved on from “playing cat and mouse” with cancer to looking to eradicate the “home” cancer makes for itself in the human body. He also made the strong point that while the researchers in his book and in the film were pioneers, so too were the patients who enrolled in clinical trials. “Their names should be etched in national memory,” he stated, like everyone who has made sacrifices for the common good.
It was Dr. Kung, however, who provided the highlight of the discussion when he pointed out that “We cure 80 percent of all kids that come in with cancer. That success, I think, is a strong counter-narrative to those who would argue that we are losing the war against cancer.” He went on to describe how by sequencing the genes of every patient – and of their cancer – he hopes not only to improve on the 80% but to achieve more cures with less harm overall: “Precision medicine also means knowing what drugs not to use. Data tells us what will not work.”
Of course, the panel made it clear that there is much work to be done, especially in dealing with survivorship issues and in providing better palliative care throughout treatment. Both of these areas are of strong focus here, under Dr. Kung’s wide-ranging leadership.
In the middle of the event, we were treated to a clip from the film, which looked as fascinating as you would hope, using terrific archive photos and footage in the great Ken Burns tradition. The segment detailed the discovery of the oncogene by Drs. Harold Varmus and J. Michael Bishop, for which they won the Nobel Prize. “We have not slain our enemy, the cancer cell,” Dr. Varmus said when accepting the award in 1989, “We have only seen our monster more clearly and described his scales and fangs in new ways — ways that reveal a cancer cell to be a distorted version of our normal selves.”
It’s safe to say that if “our monster” is not slain, it is at least deeply wounded and will suffer much future injury at the hands of the remarkable scientists working in the labs of Columbia and around the country.
You can watch the entire panel discussion here. PBS will be broadcasting Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies over three consecutive nights, starting on Monday, March 30th. If you watch – and we highly recommend that you do – please let us know what grabs your attention. If you would like to know more about Dr. Kung’s work, email us to request his brochure, Precision Medicine, Personalized Care. You can also visit Medical Daily for some in-depth remarks from Dr. Kung and if you would like to support what he is doing, make a donation here.