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Vol. LXVII, No. 9
April 24, 2015

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NIH Scientists Featured in PBS Cancer Documentary

Dr. Steven Rosenberg, NCI Surgery Branch chief, and his patient Linda Taylor appeared in the PBS series’ third episode.

Dr. Steven Rosenberg, NCI Surgery Branch chief, and his patient Linda Taylor appeared in the PBS series’ third episode.

Photo: Ernie Branson

The contributions of prominent NIH scientists were featured in Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies, a PBS series produced by award-winning documentarian Ken Burns and directed by Barak Goodman.

Based on Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s 2010 book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, the film chronicles the story of cancer, from its first description in antiquity to potential breakthroughs against the disease in the 21st century.

The 6-hour series aired over 3 nights, beginning Mar. 30. Several current and former NIH scientists were featured, including NIH director Dr. Francis Collins and former NIH director and NCI director Dr. Harold Varmus.

The first episode, “Magic Bullets,” chronicled the centuries-long search for a “cure” for cancer. The episode traced the revolution in childhood leukemia treatment. NCI’s Dr. Emil Frei III and Dr. Emil Freireich challenged the conventional wisdom that a single drug was sufficient for treatment. Their work demonstrated the effectiveness of combination chemotherapy, revolutionizing the way doctors treat childhood leukemia.

The second episode, “The Blind Man and the Elephant,” examined attempts to identify how normal cells transform into cancer cells and efforts to translate those findings into cancer treatments. The episode told of how, in 1976, Varmus, then at the University of California, San Francisco, and colleague Dr. J. Michael Bishop discovered proto-oncogenes, or normal genes that can mutate into genes that have the potential to cause cancer. Previously, cancer investigations centered on cancer-causing viruses and environmental carcinogens. Varmus and Bishop received the 1989 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their discovery.

The final episode, “Finding an Achilles Heel,” reviewed progress made in understanding cancer’s complexity. It featured Collins’ comments about the Cancer Genome Atlas, an effort to catalog genomic changes associated with different types of tumors. Collins said recent discoveries allowed scientists to more clearly understand how cancer begins. He also thinks that, eventually, a person’s individual cancer risk will be predicted on the basis of genetics, environmental exposure and lifestyle. He said that efforts to understand how cancer cells work together to influence cancer cell growth hold great promise.

Varmus was also featured in the episode. He explained that Dr. Bert Vogelstein’s research showed that cancer doesn’t have only one cause, but rather, results from a series of mutations. He noted that researchers have developed vaccines to prevent viral infections that cause cancer. He also said that cancer researchers are attempting to find markers that predict whether certain genetic abnormalities are indeed cancerous.

The episode also featured NCI Surgery Branch chief Dr. Steven Rosenberg’s pioneering work on immunotherapy, using the body’s immune system to fight cancer.

Also interviewed in the series were NIH alumni including former NCI directors Dr. Vincent DeVita and Dr. Richard Klausner, NCI clinical associate Dr. David Nathan and NCI medical officer Dr. James Holland. Several scientists from NCI-designated cancer centers also were interviewed.

For more on the PBS series, visit Bock

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