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Creativity can cure cancer, DSS speaker says

In his talk in Alumni Arena, Siddhartha Mukherjee traced the history of cancer and significant discoveries and theories along the way. He said creativity is the most critical tool today’s young people have in finding ways to cure the disease. Photo: Joe Cascio

By DAVID J. HILL

Published April 7, 2016

“Every single cancer is its own cancer. There has never been a disease in human history where the level of diversity in the disease equals the level of diversity of the patients who have the disease.”
Siddhartha Mukherjee , oncologist and speaker
Distinguished Speakers Series

The world doesn’t need more aspiring taxicab mobile app developers. It needs children who dream of using their creativity to find a cure for one of the most devastating diseases in human history: cancer.

That’s a point Pulitzer Prize-winning author and oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee drove home repeatedly during his talk Wednesday night in Alumni Arena as part of UB’s 29th annual Distinguished Speakers Series.

“We cannot continue to live in a universe where children are waking up and saying, ‘I want to make a better application to summon taxis.’ Something goes very, very wrong in human culture when children wake up thinking about taxis,” Mukherjee said.

His book “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction and was adapted into a PBS documentary last year. In addition, he is an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University and a staff cancer physician at Columbia University/New York University Presbyterian Hospital. Mukherjee’s newest book, “The Gene: An Intimate History,” will be released next month.

Mukherjee said he hopes to inspire younger generations to think about creative ways to battle cancer, which poses a very unique challenge. “Every single cancer is its own cancer. There has never been a disease in human history where the level of diversity in the disease equals the level of diversity of the patients who have the disease,” he said. “That’s the problem here. The problem is that we’re fighting a diversity game.”

Over the course of his 60-minute talk, Mukherjee traced in simple, accessible language the history of cancer and significant discoveries and theories along the way, such as:

  • The first human discovery of cancer in 2,500 B.C.
  • Rudolf Virchow’s late 19th-century theory that cancer is caused by too many cells dividing abnormally.
  • The development of chemotherapy in the 1940s. “We talk about the war on cancer — the first drugs in cancer were war gasses,” Mukherjee said.
  • A combination of drug, radiation and surgical therapies that raised certain cancer survival rates from 10 percent in the 1950s to around 80 percent by the 1970s. “This was a revolutionary moment in cancer. The idea that you could combine these therapies and cure cancer became extremely prominent and gave rise to a groundswell of optimism.”
  • The realization in the 1980s that cancer is caused by alterations in growth controlling genes.
  • The current “genomic age” of cancer, in which researchers can map out an “atlas of cancer” and think about the disease in more creative, technologically advanced ways.

It’s important to know a little science, Mukherjee said, but creativity is the most critical tool today’s young people have in finding ways to cure the disease. “If I can get that creative impulse, that little squirt of brain juice that makes you light up, I’ll go home happy,” he said.

From left: Siddhartha Mukherjee takes part in a Q&A moderated by vice presidents Michael Cain and Dennis Black. Photo: Joe Cascio

Mukherjee’s talk came as part of the School of Public Health and Health Professions’ celebration of National Public Health Week. The talk also was sponsored by the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

“Cancer is a formidable opponent. However, the future is bright because we provide students the opportunity to learn and to use their creativity to solve problems. Our students will change the world for the better with their discoveries,” Jean Wactawski-Wende, dean of the School of Public Health and Health Professions, said before Mukherjee was introduced to the stage by Roswell Park Cancer Institute President and CEO Candace Johnson.

Following his talk, Mukherjee participated in a Q&A moderated by Michael Cain, vice president for health sciences and dean of the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, and Dennis Black, vice president of university life and services.

READER COMMENT

I loved Dr. Mukherjee's comments encouraging our students in the audience to develop their creativity and then apply those creative competencies to solving big problems like finding a cure for cancer.   Developing big thinkers with creativity is a mission of great importance to the world.

 

Arlene Kaukus