'America's Failure: To Treat And Prevent Cancer'

Oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee has written an article in Newsweek about what he calls America's current failure to treat and prevent cancer — and a failure to make funding cancer research a priority. Dr. Mukherjee tells David Greene there is a lag in designing cancer drugs as well as funding cancer research in the U.S.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's talk about some more sobering statistics, these having to do with cancer. One in three women in the United States will develop cancer in their lifetimes. And for men, the figure is one out of two.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee has written an article in the current issue of Newsweek about what he calls America's failure to treat and prevent cancer, and the failure to make funding cancer research a priority. Dr. Mukherjee agreed to join us from our New York bureau.

Doctor, welcome to the program.

DR. SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: Thank you for having me.

GREENE: You write that in the world of cancer research, what we're facing today is a design challenge. Can you tell me what you mean by that?

MUKHERJEE: Well, the design challenge is, David, that cancer cells really resemble normal cells. And to find a medicine that will specifically attack the cancer cell and spare all the other cells in the body that resemble these cancer cells in every way, except for a few critical places, that's an incredible design challenge. It's like putting a key and finding the exact lock that will fit in among 100,000 such locks.

GREENE: OK, so one challenge is finding drugs that will attack cancer cells but not healthy cells. It sounds like one of the other challenges is taking these different combinations of genes that are active in different types of cells and figuring out which specific drug will go after them.

MUKHERJEE: That's correct. In fact they're related challenges, obviously. The first step is to figure out what's different between these different cell types. And the second step is to then design drugs that will specifically attack one cancer cell and spare other normal cells. But at precisely this moment of time, when we know all this information, the funding is running dry. The funding for training young students, young researchers, is running critically dry.

There's a wealth of information, but to convert that information to actionable information, into real medicines, into real treatments, into real prevention mechanisms, we need to be able to train young scientists to be able to exploit this information.

GREENE: You're saying biology has reached this really important moment when you have a ton of information. It's just the moment, though, there's not enough money to take it to the next step and use all of that knowledge to develop new drugs.

MUKHERJEE: That's exactly right. Information - for patients, information is only useful if it becomes actionable information. And by actionable information, I mean, you know, does it lead to a medicine, does it lead to a mechanism of prevention. And there's a gap that has to be crossed, precisely at this moment.

GREENE: You make an interesting connection in the article that you wrote, between cancer research and Steve Jobs. You said that his death about a year ago was personally embarrassing to you.

MUKHERJEE: It was personally embarrassing to me for precisely this reason. As a community of cancer researchers, our job is to find medicines, to find treatments, to find prevention mechanisms. So it was embarrassing that we couldn't do this in time to save one of the icons of our generation, who thought of his job as the ultimate designer. In other words, where were the designer drugs for the iconic designer?

GREENE: You write that Steve Jobs gave the world life-altering to technologies, but you feel like that your world was not able to give life-altering technologies back to him.

MUKHERJEE: That's correct.

GREENE: One of the things that caught my attention in your story was describing how some pretty incredible sounding researchers, who you've seen in your labs, have given up in a way. One decided to leave the field and work in a tattoo parlor?

MUKHERJEE: Yes, so I'm hearing. She tells me that she, you know, as the grant fundings have become so restricted, one of my researchers is moving away. And what is surprising to me is that the nation, we as a nation, paid for her training as a chemist. We paid all - we put in an enormous amount of money to train her as a chemist. And you know, given who she is, she will make one of the great tattoo experts of the world. But we've lost a chemist.

GREENE: That's oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee. He's also the author of the book "The Emperor of All Maladies." Thanks so much for joining us.

MUKHERJEE: Thank you, my pleasure.

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