By Jeffrey Norris | UCSF.edu | April 10, 2012
Frank McCormick, PhD, FRS, director of the Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center at UCSF, was elected president of the 35,000-member American Association of Cancer Research (AACR), the world’s largest organization of its kind dedicated to prevent and cure cancer through research, education, communication and collaboration.
His term began at the group’s annual meeting, which is taking place — fittingly enough — at Chicago’s McCormick Place and runs through April 4. It’s the world’s biggest meeting for cancer researchers.
McCormick was vice president of research for Cetus Corporation in the 1980s — still the early days of biotech — and in 1992 he founded Onyx Pharmaceuticals, where his pioneering research led to the development of a treatment for kidney and liver cancer. In 1996, McCormick was made a fellow of the Royal Society. He joined the faculyt at UCSF in 1997.
In this interview, McCormick discusses his views on progress to date in the battle against cancer, and shares his vision for what’s ahead.
Q: Do you have a particular agenda that you would like to advance as the new president of the AACR? What is it that most appeals to you about this opportunity to lead the organization?
A: People join AACR to get access to their journals and publications and to attend the meeting, but I see a big opportunity to build a much more interactive community, using social-networking types of technology as another way of communicating. So one of my main goals is to find ways of bringing people together more effectively to share information and and to improve communications among the cancer research communities. I also see an opportunity to expand the influence of the AACR overseas. There has been a tremendous growth in research in China and India and other countries, and the AACR needs to be out there and represented in all these different research communities.
Q: How healthy is basic research on the biology of cancer in the United States?
A: Well, the United States compared to the rest of the world is still the powerhouse of research on the basic biology of cancer. But funding is effectively shrinking, because our budgets are fixed, but costs are going up. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to get federal funding to support this kind of work. I think it’s a very dangerous and difficult time. We’re losing a lot of people, because we just can’t keep the funds coming in the door. It’s difficult to keep people motivated to join the research community when they see how tough it is to make it in academia. Our lead position is being eroded, and if we lose a couple of generations of people we’ll definitely lose a massive amount of momentum.
Q: How has scientific thinking about the problem of cancer been changing in recent years?
A: The good news is that quite a few genes that drive cancer have been identified and drugs have been developed that inhibit their actions pretty effectively, at least until drug resistance appears. The whole paradigm has changed; now we think of cancer as a large number of diseases, each characterized by different driver mutations so that each disease might respond differently to drugs. So, for example, we don’t think about lung cancer in a general sense, but instead, in terms of lung cancers caused by EGF-receptor mutations or by ALK mutations or by K-ras mutations. We think of these as separate entities, and treat them differently.
The other big evolution of our thinking is that we now understand the complexity of the mutational spectrum of cancer cells. Deep sequencing of DNA from tumors has revealed a shocking degree of variation between individual tumors and a staggering number of mutations and other genetic changes within individual tumors – even within different tumors in the same patient. It is a sobering realization as we think about trying to treat cancers with targeted therapies.