"Fareed Zakaria GPS," Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET.
Fareed Zakaria speaks with Ronald DePinho, president of the world’s largest cancer center, MD Anderson in Houston, about the future of cancer research, and whether a cure is within reach. This is an edited version of his interview on Global Public Square.
You believe that we are at a point where we could actually finally cure cancer?
I think we’re at a major turning point in the history of cancer medicine where we have a very deep understanding of how it comes about, and, if it is established, how to deal with it, and we have game-changing technological advances that allow us to do much better care, accurate care, of cancer patients.
What is the game-changing technology? What’s happened? You say this has happened, really, in the last five years.
Well, there have been major events. And what’s unusual about this period in science history, is that it’s occurred in a narrow window and across a very broad front. So it’s not one technology. It’s the fact that we can sequence genomes, the entire genome, your entire tumor profile, in a few hours for a few hundred dollars – what took billions of dollars and a decade. We have the ability to analyze those data through very sophisticated computational structures and artificial intelligence.
Now I think all understand that cancer is not one thing. So you’ve actually identified the 10 most important cancers that you believe can be overcome in the way you just described, either through early detection, aggressive treatment, so that they will not be life-threatening. Give me an example of a cancer that you believe can be essentially cured this way.
Well, I'll even give you just one project and one major cancer. The 800 pound gorilla is lung cancer. We have 170,000 deaths in this country, in the United States, each and every year. We have the ability to detect those cancers earlier now, through non-invasive imaging. So if we screen all heavy smokers, we know that we can reduce mortality by 20 percent by just catching the cancer earlier. That is 30,000 lives per year. It’s a significant number. So in order to have that occur and occur in a practical way, one needs to identify, amongst the 94 million former and current smokers, who should we screen? We can’t screen everyone. It’s not economically feasible. But if we had a risk model to say these are the few million that are knocking at cancer's door, then those individuals can be enlisted into imaging.
The holy grail for cancer would be to trigger the body’s own immune system to fight off the cancer, so that you somehow stimulate the antibodies in a way that that happens. Are we close to that?
Well, I’d say that that ship has already arrived. So I’d say the most exciting advance, to my thinking, over the last decade, has been our ability to harness the power of the immune system to fight cancer. Cancer is essentially foreign, because it’s different from what we were born with. So it has a different genetics. So it should be recognized as different. Yet it’s stealth from the immune system. And an investigator here, at MD Anderson who’s chair of immunology, Jim Allison, discovered how that occurs. The cancer puts the brakes on the immune system.
So we developed a drug against that break, a monkey wrench for that break, and unleashed the power of the immune system. And 24 percent of patients with advanced melanoma, a very lethal skin cancer, appear to be cured now.
You’re looking at the possibility of actually curing cancer? You have the knowledge, you have new technologies, computing power, artificial intelligence. What you need is money, federal investment. Are you getting the kind of federal investment in basic research that you think we need at this point?
The answer is absolutely not. I mean we have a humanitarian crisis. We have the ability to act on this. But we’re [resource depleted] as a community. So there’s been a 19 percent decline in NIH funding over the last 10 years in real dollars. This is significant, precisely at a time when we have an increased incidence of major diseases, including cancer, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, diabetes. And so you’re on a sinking ship. And what you're doing is you're trying to slow the rate of sinking through efficiencies and managing the system.