Top thinkers share ideas at Atlantic Meets Pacific confab in La Jolla

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An Oct. 3 panel on innovative approaches to cancer treatment included moderator James Fallows; Greg Sorenson, CEO of Siemens Healthcare North America; Christopher Slapak, senior vice-president of Imclone Systems; Kristina Vuori, president and interim CEO of the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute; David Sadava, adjunct professor of cancer cell biology at City of Hope Medical Center; and Scott Lippman, director of the Moores Cancer Center at UC San Diego. Pat Sherman photos

By Pat Sherman

Some of the world’s foremost authorities on science, health and technology shared their ideas during the third annual The Atlantic Meets the Pacific conference, held Oct. 2-4 on the campus of UC San Diego and Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

During a panel discussion on innovative approaches to cancer treatment, Oct. 3 at Scripps Seaside Forum, Scott Lippman, director of the Moores Cancer Center at UC San Diego, compared the current revolution in oncology to the rapid transformation in Internet and computer technology of the early 1990s.

While cancers originating in the lungs, breasts or colon were once chiefly defined by their “site of origin,” today’s researchers are increasingly defining cancers by their “molecular signature,” Lippman noted.

“It’s changing completely the way we define cancer,” he said. “Genomics is just the beginning. This is a change in the way we do trials, and a change in the way we develop drugs to treat cancer.”

Drug trials that once dragged on for years and years are going by the wayside,” Lippman added.

“We can actually look into a tumor; we have the technology to identify what drives them, what makes them tick” and what their weaknesses are.

Kristina Vuori, president and interim chief executive officer of Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute in La Jolla, noted that while just a decade ago it was believed that breast cancer was a single disease, it is now known to be a mix of many different diseases.

“We are making really great scientific advances in the classification of diseases,” she said. “Thanks to technological advances, we can take biopsies of tumors and do very detailed micro-level analysis.”

Moving forward, Vuori said she hopes molecular diagnosis will be used to match a patient to the safest, most efficacious drug, based on their cancer’s molecular signature.

Sanford-Burnham researchers are also making advances in understanding the process of metastasis — the spread of cancer from the organ or area where it began, to another location in the body. In solid tumors, 90 percent of patient deaths are due to metastasis, Vuori said.

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"Wars are won or lost. Scientific battles are not won or lost; they’re either solved or yet unsolved, so there’s a fundamental conflict with the idea of declaring war on cancer. It’s like saying ‘I’m declaring war on a puzzle.’ — During a virtual interview, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and physician Siddhartha Mukher Jee said the ‘war’ metaphor used to discuss cancer research may have an obfuscating effect.

“What we now know is that in every cancer there is something that we call a ‘cancer stem cell’ that originally causes the tumor to happen,” she said. “It’s probably the culprit for why the cancer comes back after treatment. You can think of this cancer stem cell or tumor-initiating cells as a queen in a beehive. If you don’t destroy that queen, the beehive keeps coming back.”

Greg Sorenson, chief executive officer of Siemens Healthcare North America, said personalized medicine could help prevent cancer patients from being treated with drugs that don’t work for them.

“We as a system need to figure out ways to incentivize early and efficient diagnosis,” he said. “Everybody talks a lot about costs these days, but the most wasted healthcare dollar is the one that you didn’t even need to spend because you got the wrong diagnosis.”

Asked what aspect of cancer the panelists find most difficult to explain to patients and others not involved in the field of oncology, answers ranged from the fact that it’s difficult to know what causes most cancers — be it external, internal or genetic factors — to the time it takes to develop and get safe and effective cancer treatments on the market (as long as 7 to 10 years, on average).

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