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The Story of Cancer: Pulitzer Prize-winning author speaks at VCU

From left to right: J. Brian Cassel, Ph.D., Steven Grossman, M.D., Ph.D., Siddhartha Mukherjee, D.Phil., M.D., and Thomas F. Huff, Ph.D., in front of the Egyptian Building on the MCV Campus. Photo credit: Lindy Rodman, VCU Marketing

Siddhartha Mukherjee, M.D., Ph.D., an oncologist at Columbia University and author of “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer,” recently delivered two lectures to a packed audience at Virginia Commonwealth University’s historic Egyptian Building on the MCV Campus and at the W.E. Singleton Center for the Performing Arts on the Monroe Park Campus. 

“The Emperor of All Maladies” won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. The Pulitzer board called the book “an elegant inquiry, at once clinical and personal, into the long history of an insidious disease that, despite treatment breakthroughs, still bedevils medical science.” Time magazine named it one of the most influential non-fiction books published since 1923, calling it “one of the best-written, most accessible, most relevant science books ever penned.”   

A map of where scientists have journeyed trying to understand cancer might show wrong turns, but Mukherjee remains hopeful about the progress that is now being made.  

“Make no mistake, treating cancer is one of the most significant human challenges we’ve ever faced,” Mukherjee said. “But now, for the first time, we are at an extraordinary moment in the history of cancer research because we finally are beginning to understand what causes cancer at a cellular, or molecular, or a genetic level in a way we just did not know 10 years ago or even five years ago.”  

Mukherjee’s visit to VCU was made possible by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation to the VCU Life Sciences and Religion Initiative. For 10 years, that initiative has hosted numerous lectures and debates about the interface between science and religions. Mukherjee’s visit was the final event in the series.

Why end with an oncologist talking about cancer?  

The initiative’s director, Brian Cassel, Ph.D., a researcher at VCU Massey Cancer Center, said, “In recent years our program has focused on the issue of certainty – how can we be sure we really know what we think we know? We have explored the status of human knowledge about issues at the intersection of science and religion, such as the origins of the universe. In this final event, we confronted one of the primary causes of pain, suffering and premature death in the developed world, cancer, and the status of our knowledge about it. What do we truly know about cancer today, and how do we know that for certain? Who better to speak on this issue than the physician-scientist who wrote the biography of cancer?”  

During his first lecture of the day, “Beyond the Cancer Genome: New Advances in Cancer Treatment,” Mukherjee discussed the recent advances scientists have made in understanding the basic genomic and biological bases of cancer and the prospect of future advances in treatment that will result.

“It was both inspiring and sobering in its scope. For example, regarding targeted therapies, one slide reviewed the significant advance made with one cancer; a moderate increase in survival in a second; and a failure to produce a sustained increase in survival with a third,” says Cassel.

At his second lecture, Mukherjee spoke about “Illness as Biography: Writing a History of Cancer.” In addition to giving a broad history of cancer, Mukherjee read a couple of passages from his book.  In a Q&A led by Cassel, Mukherjee answered a series of questions about the scientific process and whether we needed to make changes to how we are educating the next generation of scientists.  In his responses, Mukherjee emphasized that the scientific process has built-in steps for discovering errors and correcting them, which continually leads to improved knowledge and understanding of cancer and what is truly effective.

“Both of his lectures, and his book, were remarkable in their ability to cover very detailed scientific studies as well as the broad sweep of the history of science,” add Cassel. “The key to understanding why the ‘war on cancer’ has progressed so slowly (though steadily) is that cancer is many times more complex than other diseases—the genomic fingerprint may be different from one cancer patient to the next, even though they all have cancers of the same general type.  This level of complexity was really only revealed in the past decade.”

Mukherjee also announced that a three-part, six-hour documentary, titled “The Story of Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies,” will release in 2015. The film, produced by Ken Burns and directed by Barak Goodman, will showcase the past, present and future of cancer.

The Story of Cancer website states, “The series matches the epic scale of the disease, reshaping the way the public sees cancer and stripping away some of the fear and misunderstanding that has long surrounded it. The story of cancer is a story of scientific hubris, paternalism, and misperception, but it is also a story of human ingenuity, resilience and perseverance.”

For more information, and to watch the trailer, visit http://thestoryofcancer.org/

Written by: Alaina Schneider

Posted on: May 30, 2014

Category: Center news & funding