Ronald DePinho, M.D., on Making Cancer History©
“All my science, all my efforts drive toward changing the stories we tell about our lives,” he says. “That parents don’t have to lose children, that grandmothers get to see their families grow up.”
No doubt, he would also change the story he tells of losing his father to colon cancer in the late 1990s when he was at a high point in his own career as a physician-scientist.
As MD Anderson’s fourth full-time president, a position he assumed Sept. 1, DePinho is intent on bringing science in line with the daily practice of medicine in the clinic.
“A physician by training, I feel the best way to solve the complex problems in human disease is to conduct penetrating science in a way that informs a translational path and ultimately has an impact on the practice of medicine and the care of patients,” he says.
This has been his thrust in whatever position he’s found himself — as head of a laboratory, director of an institute, founder of biotechnology companies or adviser to pharmaceutical companies — to help others do the best job they can to improve the condition of patients.
That’s why he decided that if he were given the opportunity to lead MD Anderson, which he considers “the greatest institution devoted to cancer,” he would take on that responsibility.
“I’m inspired that now is the time when we should not simply think about the next experiment, but instead about durable cures and what it would take to get to that point.”
A leap of faith
DePinho graduated summa cum laude from Fordham University in 1977 with a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences and received his medical degree with distinction in microbiology and immunology in 1981 from Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
With a yearning to understand the “why” of disease, the physiology, he finished his internship and residency in internal medicine at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center.
Then, unlike most of his classmates, who chose clinical sub-specialties, DePinho took a leap of faith.
“I thought the next stage of my career should be devoting some efforts to learning science and going into the laboratory, then coming back into the clinic and applying that to medicine,” DePinho says. “At that time, doctoral programs were not robust and physician-scientist programs were not yet well established. I went out there at enormous risk.”
While DePinho loved clinical medicine, and people thought he had good competence in that area, Qais Al-Awqati, M.D., professor at Columbia-Presbyterian, gave him the courage to say this was the right decision to make. He pursued that next step in his career at Albert Einstein.
Attending physician, innovative scientist
DePinho was hired back at Albert Einstein as an attending physician and a researcher. One month a year, he worked in an inner-city, New York hospital attending very sick patients, many indigent, with complex and challenging medical problems. The remainder of his time was devoted to the laboratory.
“I enjoyed the experience,” he says. “For 10 years, it gave me the opportunity to interact with clinicians and teach them about what was going on in the laboratory, to bring a level of scholarship to the clinical rounds. I love to read and teach students about medicine and science.”
For the past 14 years, DePinho has guided basic-translational research programs at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School in Boston. These have focused on brain, colorectal, pancreatic and prostate cancers.
A founding director of the Belfer Institute for Applied Cancer Science at Dana-Farber, he established the concept of tumor maintenance, discovered a core pathway of aging and demonstrated that aging is a reversible process.
With his wife, Lynda Chin, M.D., he also helped co-found several biotechnology companies, with which he will continue to be affiliated.
Aveo Pharmaceuticals, which went public in 2010, concentrates on genetics and cancer biology to help discover new cancer targets by using sophisticated mouse models of cancer. These, in turn, help evaluate the activity of the drugs that get created before putting them into clinical trials. The company is conducting Phase II and Phase III trials and has approximately 10 other drugs in the pipeline.
Metamark Genetics is attempting to exploit the power of the mouse to filter through the human cancer genome and identify genes that inform us how an early stage cancer is going to behave, then predict which patients’ cancers will progress so they can receive appropriate treatments.
With an emphasis on transparency and to avoid any conflict of interest, DePinho has terminated several of his other outside and pharmaceutical involvements.
“Conflict-of-interest rules exist for a reason,” he says. “But there’s a role and responsibility for scholars in academic medicine to help shepherd the private sector toward products that will help patients. At the same time, we want to have meaningful, intimate links with industry that enable us to keep patients out of harm’s way and maintain the highest ethical standards.”
A firm foundation
While he was being interviewed for the presidency, DePinho says he was also interviewing the institution.
“I wanted to be sure that the management was outstanding, that the clinical operations were robust and that the science was strong,” he says. “On that very firm foundation, I felt I could shepherd MD Anderson into this next era in which science-driven, evidence-based medicine moves patient care forward.”