Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Cancer: Emperor of all Maladies

I usually do not watch a great deal of TV, but I am a huge Ken Burns fan. Ken Burns has made a number of very well done documentaries in the past that have aired in the US on public television (PBS). The most notably "The Civil War", which came out 25 years ago, and more recently "The Roosevelts", which aired last year. When I saw that he had directed a new documentary about cancer, I knew that I had to watch it.

The film is a three-part, six hour documentary or "biography" on cancer, based on the Pulitzer Prize winning book "Cancer: The Emperor of all Maladies" written by Siddhartha Kukherjee, an Indian-born American physician and oncologist. The film covers cancer starting from its first documented appearances thousands of years ago through the present.

Episode One: "Magic Bullets" deals with the search for a "cure" for cancer since its discovery thousands of years ago. Its focus centers on Sidney Farber's introduction of chemotherapy in the 1940s.

Episode Two: "The Blind Men and the Elephant" begins in the 1970's with the declaration of the War on Cancer by Richard Nixon.  It deals with the lack of initial success in lowering cancer rates and the desperation for treatments despite the enormous amount of money spent on addressing the disease.  During this time frame the field of molecular biology is born and the Human Genome project is completed.  Only after the gains made in the laboratory spread to the clinic do we see advances in the treatment of some cancers.

Episode Three: "Finding the Achilles Heel" looks at the success and failures of targeted therapies. As the complexity of different cancers becomes unraveled, new avenues of therapy attack become available. However, as with many things in science, with the more knowledge, we realize how much more we need to know.

All three episodes are punctuated with stories of real people afflicted with cancer that really made the series personal to me.  All of us have been touched in some way by cancer and the film certainly portrays that point.  Besides the entertainment and information of the well written narrative, this documentary brings about a bit of nostalgia for me. Much of my Ph.D training took place in a time of great advancement regarding cancer research. Many of the giants of the targeted cancer therapies made their discoveries during those most influential years of my training. The interviews of these researchers, some of whom I've met, all of whom I have great respect for and whose papers I have read and studied years ago reminded me why I chose to pursue a Ph. D degree in the first place.

Having seen the film I must to read the book...

By: BioTek Instruments, Paul Held, PhD., Laboratory Manager

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