On Sept. 1, Dr. Ronald DePinho officially became the fourth president of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. With the scientific community at, as he put it, "a critical point" in the war on cancer, he will be at the helm of one of the powerhouses in that fight.
"We're now entering into an era where technology and increasing knowledge is enabling us to do a much better job in rendering safe and effective care," DePinho said, citing the groundbreaking work done by the Human Genome Project in the 1990s to sequence DNA, which can now be done, he says, "within hours at perhaps a millionth of the cost."
But there's still plenty of work to be done. Paraphrasing John F. Kennedy, DePinho said, "The greater our knowledge increases, the more our ignorance unfolds."
Among numerous advisory boards, DePinho is also co-chairman of the National Institutes of Health's Cancer Genome Atlas Project, which seeks to develop a similar understanding of the genomics of cancer with the hope of developing very targeted, effective therapies — something MD Anderson hopes to be a leader in under DePinho.
Describing himself as a "bridge builder," DePinho says he will also be reaching out to other health institutions around the state. "As great as MD Anderson is, as critical a mass as it has to really move the field forward singlehandedly, it can't do it alone and it has to reach out and engage," he said. "We can really mount an assault on this dreaded disease."
After 14 years at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School in Boston, DePinho stepped into his new role in Texas during seemingly difficult times. Public debate that questions the value of academic research has been swirling — particularly around the UT System. And the state has been slashing budgets, though DePinho expressed appreciation for their "visionary" support of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.
DePinho recently sat down with the Tribune to discuss these issues and more, including his view of federal health care reform and the timeline for finding a cure for cancer.