Will CANCER: THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES Be the Next Sputnik?

An exclusive guest blog from Eric T. Rosenthal

The “CANCER: Emperor of All Maladies Science Award” announced March 24 at a press event at Columbia University and later at a special screening of the documentary at Frederick P. Rose Hall at Jazz at Lincoln Center, is an ambitious complementary educational component that was developed to help generate future generations of cancer researchers.

Inspired by the airing of Ken Burns Presents CANCER: THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES, directed by Barak Goodman, on PBS stations March 30, 31, and April 1 at 9 pm ET, the award will supplement PBS’s LearningMedia program that makes use of PBS content, aligns it to standards, and makes it available to teachers through multiple platforms, according to Krystal Putman-Garcia, LearningMedia’s marketing director.

The addition of such an award is unprecedented because it will provide direct financial support and mentoring by established researchers for high school students who might not otherwise be exposed to careers in medical research.

The program will initially present annual $1,500 stipends and an electronic tablet to 100 high school students attending Title 1 or comparable schools across the country and pair each student with a science mentor who will provide encouragement and academic and career advice, serve as role model, and, when available, provide laboratory exposure.

The application process will begin in August and awards will be announced at the end of this year.  Students can apply directly for the award or can be nominated by teachers.

So far documentary supporters Genentech and Bristol-Myers Squibb, as well as Novartis, have committed funding that will cover the first three years. Award recipients will have the opportunity to extend their participation in the program for additional years.

Expectations are running high that the documentary—touted as the most comprehensive film ever presented about cancer—may do for cancer research when the launching of Sputnik in 1957 did for science in America.

Otis W. Brawley, MD, chief medical and scientific officer with the American Cancer Society, said: “Those of us who are in mid-career now came into science because of the space program.  We first watched it on television and became exposed to scientists and then became interested in science. Then in high school and college there were science teachers and scientists who turned us on and lit the flame.”

He said he hoped that it would not only provide enthusiasm about cancer research to students in junior high school and high school, but “also serve as a motivating factor for some graduate students already interested in science to buckle down and give an even greater commitment to cancer research.”

Brawley said that he had already signed up as a mentor, which is a core component of the educational project linked with the documentary based on the 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD, PhD.

The concept for the awards and one-on-one mentorship grew out of series of teleconferences by an Emperor of All Maladies Education Subcommittee chaired by Sherry Lansing, a SU2C cofounder; chair of the Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF), the nonprofit of which SU2C is a part; founder of the Sherry Lansing Foundation, and former celebrated film studio executive.

The subcommittee members represented senior science or communications executives from EIF/SU2C, WETA, Genentech, Cancer Treatment Centers of America, Siemens Corporation, Bristol-Myers Squibb, American Association for Cancer Research, American Cancer Society, and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society–the various production supporters of the cancer series. For disclosure I served on the subcommittee to provide a journalist’s perspective.

Lansing said that she jumped at the chance to serve on the education subcommittee when she first learned of the opportunity.

Following graduation from Northwestern University, she went west to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the film business, and spent three years as a long-term high school math and English substitute teacher in Watts and East LA.

She said teaching was always her “second love,” and she has now been able to come full circle pursuing philanthropic ventures in education and cancer research.

Laura Ziskin [the late Hollywood producer who was a SU2C cofounder and urged her colleagues to obtain the film and television rights to Mukherjee’s book] always wanted Stand Up to help create a movement [to support cancer research],” she said.

“But then you ask, ‘How do I get this to live forever, to solve some of the problems that exist in science and cancer research?’  And so we formed this education subcommittee to address what we wanted to do.

She said that she had no preconceived ideas about what the subcommittee might do, admitting things could have gone “a hundred different ways, but somehow organically the group found its direction,” and went forth with the idea of establishing a science award and mentorship program.

Sung Poblete, PhD, RN, president and CEO of SU2C, said that continued success in cancer research is dependent on feeding the pipeline for future generations of cancer researchers, and that Stand Up would continue its efforts to support more opportunities for younger people to get involved cancer research careers, and to help perpetuate the pay-it-forward model of offering mentoring by those who had received mentoring earlier on in the process, as well as by more-senior researchers.

 

Eric T. Rosenthal is special correspondent with MedPage Today. He also serves as the journalist member of CANCER: The Emperor of All Maladies Education Subcommittee.

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