Ronald A. DePinho, M.D., FCRH ’77, told a Fordham audience on Sept. 19 that scientists are closing in on a cure for cancer. Photo by Chris Taggart

A luminary in cancer research brought a message of hope to the Fordham community on Sept. 19, outlining the medical advances scientists have made in recent decades and identifying ways to address the remaining challenges.

Ronald A. DePinho, M.D., FCRH ’77, president of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, presented “Conquering Cancer” for the Fordham University Science Council’s fall lecture, held at The University Club in Midtown.

Dr. DePinho, an internationally recognized researcher who spent 14 years at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School before assuming presidency of MD Anderson, said that medical advances have placed humanity at a turning point.

“This period of human history is going to go down as a major turning point for the human race,” Dr. DePinho told students, faculty, administrators, alumni, and others involved with the sciences. “I believe that it’s going to rank up there with the discovery of fire and the advent of socialization.”

Dr. DePinho said that cracking the genetic code in 1953 was a “seminal event” that prepared scientists today to understand life “on its most elemental level” and, moreover, have a huge impact on the successful treatment of disease.

However, there are new challenges as a result.

Thanks to improvements in vaccination, antibiotics, hygiene, and surgery, life expectancy has doubled worldwide; however, a larger older population means greater incidences of cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

By 2050, Dr. DePinho said, we could be spending $1 trillion on Alzheimer’s disease alone.

“We have a very significant issue . . . and that is the changing demographics and the impact that this is going to have on our children and their children with respect to handling the burden of age-related disease,” he said.

Nevertheless, Dr. DePinho said he is confident that there is a solution.

“The answer is quite simple. It’s science. It’s to understand these diseases sufficiently so that we can prevent them from happening in the first place, detect them early, or, if they do occur, definitely resolve them. And with today’s knowledge and technology, we actually can do that.”

Two days after he spoke at Fordham, Dr. DePinho publicly announced that MD Anderson would be launching a $3 billion initiative to dramatically reduce cancer deaths over the next 10 years. The Moon Shots Program, as the center has termed it, will capitalize on technological advances to accelerate the pace at which scientific discoveries are turned into clinical practices. For patients diagnosed with the five leading cancers—including lung cancer, melanoma, breast and ovarian cancers, prostate cancer, and three types of leukemia—Dr. DePhinho announced that a cure is in sight.

(Above) A crowd of students, faculty, administrators, alumni, and others involved with the sciences gathered at The University Club (Below) Dr. DePinho speaks with Fordham science students Photos by Chris Taggart

At the Fordham lecture, Dr. DePinho explained some of the key achievements that augured well for finding a cure. He said that when the human genome was first sequenced in the 1990s, the project took 12 years and cost $3.6 billion to map one genome. Today, a human genome can be sequenced in just a few hours for $300.

Scientists have also made great strides in genetic engineering: by manipulating genes, they can target genetic mutations and “silence” them before they can become a disease.

Between the curtailed cost of sequencing and improvements in genetic engineering, interdisciplinary researchers across the country have begun mapping tens of thousands of tumors so that healthcare professionals can target treatments for specific cancers.

“Imagine trying to do battle with an enemy that’s over a ledge and you can’t see it,” he said. “Now we can go onto the summit with the technology that we have. We can see all the enemy troops and we can actually say which ones are the generals, as opposed to the privates, and use sniper instead of carpet bombing to go after those key generals so that, if we target them in the right way, the whole mission will collapse.”

Dr. DePinho, who was the 1977 Fordham salutatorian, also had a message for the students.

“When history writes how we conquered the great diseases, your generation will write the final chapter,” he said.

“You’re going to bear a very special responsibility, because the human race is counting on you to take what we have done and bring it to a point where it impacts on people—including the indigent, including the third world. Those are the values that I learned at Fordham.”

The lecture was sponsored by the Fordham University Science Council, which promotes science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) initiatives at Fordham by supporting both students and faculty in their careers and research. Council members provide students with mentoring and advising and help provide opportunities for assistantships and internships.

A video of Dr. DePinho’s talk is available here.