Frontline Cancer: Thankful for enlightened scientists

FRONTLINE CANCER:

"Behind every beautiful thing there's been some kind of pain." —Bob Dylan,"Not Dark Yet"

Here's a doctor's confidentiality: I'm a huge Dylan fan.

My admiration for the singer and songwriter is deep and abiding, no matter how much the times they are a-changin.' I've read possibly every book ever written about him, including one that consisted entirely of reprinted newspaper interviews. I saw him in concert at the Houston Rodeo in 2002. I stood no more than 10 feet from the stage, tangled up in Bob.

He didn't move; neither did I.

Last month, Dylan received the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature, a surprising and controversial choice to some, but one that I and fellow devotees applauded.

Dylan possesses an indisputable genius, an original way of seeing and explaining life that seems a necessary prerequisite and trait among Nobel laureates. Certainly that has been my observation and my experience with two laureates I actually do know.

When Roger Tsien died earlier this year at age 64, a light went out in the world. Tsien was professor of pharmacology, chemistry and biochemistry in the UC San Diego School of Medicine and co-winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his literally illuminating work with fluorescent proteins.

With fellow laureates Osamu Shimomura and Martin Chalfie, Tsien turned a protein used by glowing jellyfish into a laboratory tool that scientists everywhere now employ to peer within living cells and organisms. Researchers have used green fluorescent proteins, for example, to trace nerve cell damage during Alzheimer's disease and how insulin-producing beta cells are created in the pancreas of a growing embryo.

Among the great beneficiaries of his work has been cancer research, which very much interested Roger. In recent years he devoted considerable time to advancing the utility of fluorescent proteins in cancer science and treatments, including collaborating with Quyen Nguyen, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Surgery and a staff investigator at Moores Cancer Center, to create fluorescent peptides that would cause hard-to-see peripheral nerves to glow, allowing surgeons to avoid damaging or cutting them, and Anne Wallace, M.D., who translated his imaging agent into its first clinical trial, which was conducted and recently completed at the Moores' Comprehensive Breast Health Center.

Yet despite these and many other accomplishments, Roger was invariably humble and self-effacing. "I'm just the guy who makes the tools," he once said of his work. He liked to talk about his projects and ideas, not himself. In our meetings and conversations, Roger was invariably thinking ahead, seeing possibilities not yet imagined by others. Earlier this month, there was a special event on campus for colleagues to honor and remember Roger. He will not be forgotten.

Neither will the dinner I had with Roger and my other favorite Nobel laureate, Elizabeth Blackburn, Ph,D,, who became president of Salk Institute for Biological Studies this year after a long and distinguished tenure at UC San Francisco.

Blackburn won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine one year after Roger for discovering the molecular nature of telomeres, the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes, and for co-discovering telomerase, an enzyme that maintains telomere ends. Telomeres and telomerase play key roles in aging and in diseases like cancer. Her work was enlightening and profound.

Like Roger, Liz is a towering intellect, a scientist of incredible vision and energy. I've had the privilege of working with her to advocate for cancer research and prevention. Sitting at that dinner so many months ago, I will admit to a bit of bedazzlement, but also inspiration. The experience reminded me of something Dylan once said: "Some people feel the rain, others just get wet." People like Roger and Liz also ask why and whether there's a better way to stay dry.

Dylan's quotes and lyrics are often equally bewildering and insightful. I like his songs, in part, because they capture a world view the best researchers possess: an ability to think outside the box, often far, far beyond it.

At Moores Cancer Center and UC San Diego, we have benefitted enormously from having many such scientists in our midst, people like Shu Chien, Craig Venter and Michael Karin among them. Liz embodies this ideal; Roger quietly helped define it.

"I define nothing," Dylan once said. "I take each thing as it is, without prior rules about what it should be." Our best and brightest are like that: They look at the world, take its measure and pursue goals that help make the world what it can and should be. We are smarter and better for knowing them.

Rest in peace, Roger. We will carry on.

Scott M. Lippman, M.D., is director of UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center. His column on medical advances from the front lines of cancer research and care appears in La Jolla Light the fourth Thursday of each month. You can reach Dr. Lippman at mcc-dir-lippman@ucsd.edu

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