Forty years after Richard Nixon and America declared war on cancer, the numbers stood out in Anna Barker’s presentation last Friday at the East Valley Health Care Summit in Gilbert.
Forty years ago, we thought we would cure cancer in a decade. After all, America had put a man on the moon. If we put our minds to it, we could do anything.
Forty years later, 1.5 million of us will be diagnosed with cancer. Cancer remains the second leading cause of death. As of 2010 the mortality rate of cancer was 190.1 for every 100,000 Americans. In 1950, the mortality rate was 193.9 per 100,000 Americans.
In short, we’re still at war and don’t look for light at the end of the tunnel—at least not yet.
Barker coupled troubling statistics with an equally grim outlook. As we baby boomers move into the autumns of our lives, the number of new cancer cases will soar by 30 percent over the 20 next years.
Barker called it a tsunami with devastating costs.
Yet before you decide this column is just too dark to go there, there is hope.
In fact, conference speakers seemed to be of one mind that science’s understanding of the enemy is deepening, that the forces battling cancer are gaining strength and the link between science and bedside treatment is growing stronger.
There is no mystery behind why cancer was the leading topic at the health care summit.
It took place at Banner Gateway Medical Center at the Higley Road and U.S. 60 where the MD Anderson Cancer Center out of Houston Texas has established a partnership with Banner and last fall opened a treatment facility.
The outpatient clinic is the beginning of what will be a growing MD Anderson presence in the East Valley.
An indication of that commitment is that the keynote speaker was Houston-based MD Anderson President and CEO Ronald DePinho.
DePinho’s participation and the conference itself was the outgrowth of several visits that Gilbert Mayor John Lewis made to Houston to see his son in medical school and to cultivate a relationship with MD Anderson’s leaders.
DePinho, a medical doctor and scientist, is relatively new at the helm of MD Anderson.
He came to Houston from the Harvard Medical School and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute last September with the intent, according to an MD Anderson publication, of “bringing science in line with the daily practice of medicine in the clinic.”
It was DePinho (pronounced DePinyo) who shone a blazing spotlight on Anna Barker at the East Valley summit.
“You have a giant in your midst,” DePinho said, pointing to Barker and her work on genomic sequencing and the “confluence” of various scientific advances that are being integrated into cancer research.
At the same time that DePinho arrived in Houston, Barker was heading to Arizona State University by way of the National Cancer Institute. She served for eight years as the institute’s deputy director and as deputy director for strategic scientific initiatives.
If you are not a cancer research scientist, doing a Google search on Barker’s career is a real vocabulary building experience.
Barker, who holds a doctorate from Ohio State University where she studied immunology and microbiology, is one of those people who makes stuff happen by bringing a lot of smart people together.
Her online resume credits her with being a leader in these efforts at the National Cancer Institute:
“The Cancer Genome Atlas, co-developed with the National Human Genome Research Institute to identify all genomic and molecular changes in cancer; the Nanotechnology Alliance for Cancer, a network dedicated to developing and applying nanotechnologies; and the Physical Sciences Oncology Centers that connects physicists, mathematicians, engineers and cancer scientists dedicated to developing a fundamental understanding of cancer.”
I know that’s a lot to chew and digest. A video I found online of her giving a presentation at a conference about 18 months ago might help. Here’s the link: http://evtnow.com/2gm.
The summit was filmed and will be available on the town of Gilbert’s web site (http://gilbertaz.gov).
Barker works hard to come up with metaphors that will help the rest of us understand what she is involved in.
In one that I could understand, she compared cancer to a runaway computer program.
A virus or something in our environment causes a gene to change and the information highway to our cells becomes corrupted; that causes cancer to spread in our cells.
She is also an advocate of something called personalized medicine.
While science, demographers and marketers strive to understand our behavior by identifying how we are alike and lumping us into categories and groups, the truth of the matter is we are all different.
“My breast cancer is different from your breast cancer,” Barker told the audience.
That view has led her and other speakers at the conference to preach the value of “personalized medicine.”
We are complex systems. If you start treating one of our parts, you had better understand how the treatment will affect the rest of us.
Barker has also been a leading advocate of enlisting different kinds of scientists into the battle lines against cancer.
“If I had to ask myself what are the biggest advances that are going to be made in medicine, it’s going to be the convergence of physics and biology in this century,” she said in 2010.
In my interview with her this week, she amended that to include mathematicians and engineers.
What brought her to Arizona State?
She gives a great deal of credit to ASU President Michael Crow for “Herculean efforts to create a university that has real relevance.”
She is also here because she will be doing work that builds off of the expertise she gained from the National Cancer Institute in bringing multiple scientific disciplines together and also because she’s taken a look at what’s going on in Arizona and sees a lot of promise.
“The Valley could become a real linchpin,” she said.
Take Banner MD Anderson, for instance.
She called DePinho “a world class scientist” and it’s “remarkable to have MD Anderson here. It is going to be a big player in research areas.”
And it’s not just MD Anderson. Barker pointed to the International Genome Consortium in Phoenix and the Critical Path Institute in Tucson that is involved in improving medical product development.
“It’s an impressive group in that the capabilities that exist here are better than almost any place,” she told me.
Those capabilities are to translate research and make the findings “adaptable to becoming diagnostic and therapeutic so that they can be commercialized.”
In that way she is like Crow — determined to figure out to make the research relevant, to get it to the patient.
Mortality rates on cancer may suggest little progress in battling cancer, but I left the summit encouraged.
At the opening of the summit, Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett, said that Arizona is becoming “a destination place for people seeking healing.”
It was once so. What a wonderful thought that it will once again be so.
Jim Ripley is the former executive editor of the East Valley Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.