News from the Front Lines

Stephen J. Chanock, M.D.

Director, Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics

National Cancer Institute, Bethesda, MD

Why did you get involved in cancer research?

I lost my older brother the year I started medical school to a rare cancer of children and young adults, known as synovial sarcoma. He was diagnosed and treated at the NCI in Bethesda, where I work to this day to do whatever I can to solve the riddles of so many different types of cancers, particularly in children. This was a momentous set of events and clearly shaped my way of looking at life and strengthened my resolve to do something about cancer.

I should also add that my closest friend and roommate for 4 years at University had hemophilia and I saw up close the ravages of serious chronic disease. He is now doing well after a liver transplant for Hepatitis C- and when he woke up- his hemophilia was cured with a good liver that makes Factor VIII.

What do you think is the most exciting thing happening in the world of cancer research right now? 
 Why is this important and what implications does it have? 

Remarkable discoveries in the etiology of cancer are quickly transforming how we can treat but also prevent or diagnose early. There are very exciting findings in genetics- both of he cancer and susceptibility to cancer, which will inform how we approach and hopefully prevent many types. Together with basic biological insights, new therapies and approaches are emerging quickly- of which immunotherapy is one such example.

What do you think most people get wrong about cancer? 

That it is one thing- when in fact it is many different diseases with different risk factors, patterns of incidence and response to therapies. We are in the midst of redefining the nature of many cancers. I have always thought we should talk about cancers (and not a singular cancer).

Are there any other promising trends in the cancer research field that we should know about? 

Studying how the immune system and the microenvironment interact with mutated cancer genes holds great promise for figuring out how and why cancers act differently.

Where should we be focusing most of our time and effort in getting closer to a cure? 

On many things as different types of cancer require distinct treatments. Again, the idea of a single cancer is misleading.