Phillip A. Sharp
Sharp, a Nobel laureate and MIT Institute professor, is chairman of the scientific advisory committee of Stand Up to Cancer, which has spent $180 million since 2008 to support cancer research, much of it in the Boston area. On Friday at 8 p.m., the group will broadcast its third fundraising telethon simultaneously on all the major networks and cable channels.
Q. What is the state of cancer research 41 years after President Nixon declared a war on cancer?
‘The same technology we’re talking about in sequencing the DNA from cancers has allowed us to identify mutations that increase the susceptibility of patients to cancer.’
A. [In recent years] we’ve advanced cancer care by personalization of the treatment of cancer patients. In the best of conditions, we are able to charac-terize the genetic changes that occur in the cancer relative to the normal tissue, and now in a small number of cases, treat that cancer specifically with agents that target the genetic changes. This is the cutting edge of cancer research.
Q. What role are advances in gene research playing in our understanding of cancer?
A. We knew before that most cancers were due to mutations in the genes in cancer cells. Now [that we can sequence a tumor’s genes], we’re able to identify the full spectrum of mutations that have occurred in a given cancer. It’s expanding our knowledge of cancer and in the process, it’s also expanding our ability to care for the cancer patient.
Q. Why is it taking so long to truly understand and defeat cancer?
A. Cancer is a remarkably complex disease. Cells accumulate [genetic] mutations over many decades. To eliminate all of it is complicated. It’s easier to do when you identify the cancer early. As we treat cancers, we’re finding that combinations of treatments, much like what we use now in AIDS patients, are best for controlling many cancers.
Q. Is it realistic to think of “curing” cancer, or should we be thinking more about “managing” the disease.
A. Increasingly we’re able to achieve cures. But for the majority of cancers that people experience, they’re treated, they get better, it comes back, they’re treated again. The treatments are becoming less toxic, more compatible with a quality of life, and extending life longer and longer.
Q. So far, with Stand Up to Cancer, you’ve created seven “dream teams” of researchers across different universities and disciplines to help understand different aspects of cancer. Can you give an example of one area you’re excited about?
A. Tumor cells frequently have genes that are shut off by modifications of the DNA. [One dream team has] found ways to reverse those modifications, and it appears to make tumors sensitive to drugs they have become resistant to. If that pans out in bigger studies which are ongoing, it’s quite exciting in terms of patients.
Q. What about prevention? Are the advances in genetics helping prevent cancers?
A. The same technology we’re talking about in sequencing the DNA from cancers has allowed us to identify mutations that increase the susceptibility of patients to cancer. Then, more intense surveillance and modifications in lifestyle [are] able to reduce the incidents of cancer.
Q. What role do lifestyle factors play?
A. We’re making [advances] in getting people not to smoke [or] engage in other habits that increase the risk of cancer. But cancer is a disease of aging. As you get older, the rate of cancer dramatically increases.
Q. What about your own life? Do you know some secret you could pass on?
A. I don’t smoke, I try to control my weight, and I try to get exercise every day. I don’t engage in high-risk activities if I can avoid it.