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A Year in Houston: DePinho Reflects on Plans, Conflicts, Controversies—and Lessons Learned
The Cancer Letter invited MD Anderson President Ronald DePinho to
reflect on his first year as head of the cancer center.
The interview offered new perspective on his approach to managing
conflicts stemming from relationships with industry, the role of his scientist-wife
Lynda Chin plays at MD Anderson, his plans for what he calls “the Moon
DePinho also provided his perspective on the controversies that
arose during his first year at MD Anderson, particularly stemming from
Chin’s biotechnology “incubator,” which received $20 million in Texas
state funds, but was ultimately withdrawn, to be resubmitted at a later
The interview was conducted by Paul Goldberg, editor and publisher
of The Cancer Letter.
PG: In your job interviews, originally with the UT System
chancellor and the regents, you were asked, I’m sure, to describe
your vision for MD Anderson. In a nutshell, what were the plans you
described for them?
RD: The interview process was a very essential and lengthy one,
during which I was asked to describe my vision for MD Anderson and for
cancer care in the future, which, I’m sure, was asked of all the candidates.
PG: Of course. What was your answer?
RD: If I recall, just to distill it down to the most elemental points, the
major emphasis was that we were entering into an era of science-driven
cancer care, in which patients would be administered therapies that would
be more effective, based on their genetics, and also avoiding toxicities based
on their inherent genetic make-up.
That was an important aspect that permeated most of my comments.
I also spoke about the need for increased prevention and early detection.
Prevention is one area that really focuses on understanding why we
get cancer in the first place, also developing the right educational tools that
enable us to, for example, protect children from sun exposure, to reduce
childhood obesity as well as to prevent children each and every day from starting
smoking; things of that nature.
Also with respect to early detection, this is where I think some of the
greatest near-term impact is going to occur, with the revolution ongoing in
serum proteomics and imaging. We have a tremendous opportunity to shift
our discovery of cancers to much earlier stages, when the chance for cure is
I place a great deal of emphasis on prevention and early detection.
PG: Would this be what you were going to do at MD Anderson—look at
prevention and early detection?
RD: I think in general, the field of cancer has focused significantly on
understanding the genetic basis of cancer and focusing significantly on treatment,
which is continuing to be a major emphasis for us.
But I mentioned that we are entering into an era where we can be far
more proactive in understanding cancer genesis and using that knowledge to
prevent disease—look at the revolution that occurred as a result of the HPV
vaccine, the knowledge of hepatitis virus, H. pylori.
These are all opportunities for us to understand what drives cancer and
intervene in ways that are most effective. I think that the future, while it will
continue to focus heavily upon the treatment of advanced disease, will also focus
increasingly on preventive-interventive strategies as well as early detection.
PG: So that’s your vision for MD Anderson?
RD: Actually, this has been part of our mission for some time. I think it’s a
matter of emphasis, but it has been central to our mission for many, many years.