DePinho was born in the Bronx, N.Y., in 1955. He earned a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences in 1977 from Fordham University, where he graduated summa cum laude as class salutatorian. He received his medical degree with distinction in microbiology and immunology in 1981 from Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
He completed an internship and residency in internal medicine at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, followed by postdoctoral fellowships in the Department of Cell Biology at Einstein and in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at Columbia-Presbyterian.
Prior to joining MD Anderson, DePinho spent 14 years at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School in Boston. Founding director of the Belfer Institute for Applied Cancer Science at Dana-Farber,he served as a professor in the Department of Medicine (genetics) at Harvard and was an American Cancer Society Research Professor. Previously, he held numerous faculty positions during 10 years at Einstein.
DePinho’s independent scientific career began at Einstein, where he was the Feinberg Senior Scholar in Cancer Research. There, he established the first National Cancer Institute-supported shared transgenic and gene targeting facility, which enabled his laboratory and many other researchers to model and study the genetic basis of cancer and other complex diseases.
DePinho's laboratory has produced an array of discoveries leading to better methods of early cancer detection, improved cancer patient care and new cancer drug development. The range of his research includes cancer drug and biomarker development, cancer gene discovery, stem cell biology and development of genetically engineered mouse models to study cancer in humans.
DePinho was the first to show the Myc family of oncogenes (cancer-causing genes) function through common cell signaling pathways to transform “normal” cells into malignant ones.
In a series of key experiments, DePinho established the concept of “tumor maintenance” to address the question of whether an original cancer-causing oncogene can remain active in maintaining a tumor despite the accumulation of many alterations in DNA during the malignant transformation process. This concept has contributed to cancer drug development by guiding identification of new therapeutic points of attack, as well as novel biomarkers that measure a patient’s response to a drug during a course of treatment.
His research also provided some of the first evidence that the p53 gene can suppress the development of some cancers by stimulating apoptosis, a process by which the majority of cancer cells die naturally. DePinho and Robert Eisenman, Ph.D., discovered a co-repressor complex (known as mSin3/HDAC) that links a transcription factor and chromatin regulation in suppressing cancers. His lab also provided the first genetic evidence that a familial melanoma gene serves as a potent tumor suppressor in melanoma and many other cancer types.
With about 78% of all cancers diagnosed in people older than 55, perhaps DePinho’s most notable contributions involve the link between advancing age and increasing risk of cancer. He convincingly established that three factors — telomere dysfunction, an impaired ability of a cell to repair DNA damage and the continued renewal of the epithelial layer of tissue that covers organs — all unite to cause rearrangements in the DNA that drive the genesis of many common cancers.
Telomeres are sections of DNA at the ends of chromosomes. Each time a cell divides, telomeres lose a small amount of DNA and become shorter. In cancer cells, however, the telomeres are maintained by activation of a special enzyme, telomerase. Cancer cells usually have more telomerase than most normal cells, which contributes to their immortality and ability to spread.
Beyond cancer, DePinho’s work on telomeres has established the role of telomere dysfunction in acquired and inherited degenerative disorders, such as end-stage liver failure. His findings even suggest there may be a “point of return” in which medicines might help severely aged organs recover a youthful state.
DePinho has created many faithful mouse models of human cancer. Most recently, he has developed the first metastatic prostate cancer model in mice, which he has used to identify tumor biomarkers that can stratify men into either high risk or low risk for spread of their disease. Using this approach, his laboratory has discovered prostate cancer markers that predict how lethal a cancer may be, which will better direct the course of therapy for men with this common cancer.
In addition to his presidential duties at MD Anderson, DePinho remains an active scientist in his laboratory and in the Institute for Applied Cancer Science. His lab focuses mainly on basic-to-translational research programs for brain, colorectal, pancreas and prostate cancers, as well as aging and neuro-degeneration.
DePinho is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for Cancer Research Academy, and has received numerous other honors and awards including:
- American Italian Cancer Foundation Prize for Scientific Excellence in Medicine, 2012
- Albert Szent-Gyorgyi Prize for Progress in Cancer Research, 2009
- Helsinki Medal, 2007
- Albert Einstein College of Medicine Distinguished Alumnus Award, 2004
- American Association for Cancer Research Clowes Memorial Award, 2003
- American Society for Clinical Investigation Award, 2002
A former member of the Board of Directors of the American Association for Cancer Research, DePinho has served on numerous advisory boards in public and private sectors, including co-chair of the National Cancer Institute's Mouse Models of Human Cancer Consortium and the National Institutes of Health's Cancer Genome Atlas Project.
He has authored more than 250 peer-reviewed articles for scientific journals, has contributed to more than 50 books, chapters and review articles, and has launched the careers of dozens of basic and translational cancer scientists.
DePinho previously co-founded several biotechnology companies focused on cancer therapy and diagnostics.
DePinho and his wife, Lynda Chin, M.D., also a renowned cancer physician-scientist, are the parents of three children.