Frontline Cancer: Top scientists to tackle cancer challenge


Elizabeth Blackburn has spent much of her career at the forefront, a pioneering researcher whose work has garnered virtually every major award in science: the Lasker, Gruber and Gairdner prizes, for example, and, of course, the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her discovery of the molecular nature of telomeres – the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes that preserve genetic information.

Such distinctions tend to make one stand out and Liz, whom I have had the privilege to know and work with for many years, is indisputably singular, one of a kind. Indeed, when she joined the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences at the beginning of the year (moving from UC San Francisco), she became the Salk’s first female president.

Liz would also be the first to acknowledge that true scientific progress is not a solitary pursuit. It takes a lab. It takes a university, a policy, a plan with sustainable funding, an industry, a collaboration of people and institutions all working toward a common goal and good. She reflects that in her enduring commitment to public service, from serving as president of the American Association of Cancer Research and the American Society for Cell Biology to member of both the Stem Cell Research Advisory Panel to the California State Legislature and the President’s Council of Bioethics, a federal advisory group.

Her voice was elemental at last month’s gathering of world leaders in Davos, Switzerland where Vice President Joe Biden convened a special session on fighting cancer. Biden has been tasked by President Obama to lead the so-called “cancer moonshot,” a national initiative to hasten a cancer cure. She was the leading advocate for emphasizing prevention.

Prevention and treatment are inextricably connected. Put simply, they are required company, not unlike two hands in clapping. One hand is prevention, the other is treatment. There can be no real or sustained applause – or cancer impact - without both.

Finding a cure for cancer – or more precisely, cures – will take time and the work of many. That’s why I am so delighted that Liz has come to the Salk, to San Diego and to the Mesa, home to three National Cancer Institute-designated cancer centers: UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center, Salk and the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute.

A few years ago, Moores, Salk and SBP launched an unprecedented enterprise: the Cancer Center Council (C3) to combine and leverage our individual strengths, share our resources and expertise and essentially do more together than we might do apart. These efforts have included funding joint research projects.

Liz brings new energy and authority. Though she has only been on the Salk campus a few weeks, she is already busy at work developing the Salk’s strategic vision, exploring further synergistic collaborations across the Mesa, such as C3.

“One of Salk’s great strengths is its focus upon fundamental science discovery, which is critical to generating and driving translational research and clinical impact,” Blackburn told me. “My work on telomeres is an example of how very basic work can influence the way we think about impacts on human health and chronic diseases such as cancer, the magnitude of which we are only now beginning to recognize and understand.

“Salk has an impressive legacy in this area, from the seminal work of former Salk cancer center director Tony Hunter, who discovered a new type of enzyme called tyrosine kinases that are altered in many cancers and have become the target of new cancer drugs, to new cancer center director Reuben Shaw’s investigations of cancer metabolic pathways and potential development of a diabetes drug (metformin) for oral cancer prevention with Moores colleagues Silvio Gutkind, Ezra Cohen, and Joseph Califano, as part of a larger proposed research program in head and neck cancer.

Conquering cancer is the work of a lifetime; many lifetimes in fact. It will require our best efforts and brightest minds. The work of C3 and other similar endeavors represent the former; Liz is one of the latter. I look forward to our continuing collaboration and, in time, to being able to report great progress and ultimately, I hope, achievement of our goals.

Scott M. Lippman, MD, 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 the La Jolla Light the fourth Thursday of each month. You can reach Dr. Lippman at