Transitions in Cancer Research
Cancers have been recognised as lethal diseases since antiquity, but systematic studies that advance our understanding, prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of these diseases have been performed for only about a century.
For the first half of that time, the methods available for cancer research were not well suited to comprehending diseases that later proved to be based on alterations of genomes, mostly somatic mutations and rearrangements. The situation improved when new research tools were developed for studying cancer-causing viruses quantitatively; for establishing the mutational activity of chemical and physical causes of cancer; for isolating and manipulating genes instrumental in carcinogenesis; and for modelling the development of various types of cancer in laboratory mice.
With the recent advent of rapid DNA sequencing, it became possible to analyse the damaged genomes of human cancers in remarkable detail, promoting more rigorous diagnosis, new forms of epidemiology, and rational therapies. The novel treatments include drugs that target miscreant proteins and immunotherapies that encourage a patient’s immune cells to attack cancer cells. Still newer methods for characterizing single cells, not just collections of tumour cells, are now promoting a deeper understanding of tumour initiation, evolution, prognosis, heterogeneity, metastasis, and resistance to therapies.
"I will discuss some of these features of the episodic history and the promising landscape of cancer research, with references to my own career in this field and the accompanying changes in social and medical practices."
Dr Harold Varmus
The 2017 Graeme Clark Oration will be video recorded and available for viewing on the Internet. Photos will also be taken and used on web publications and in print publications or in promotional activities. If you do not wish to be filmed or photographed, please tell our staff members on the day.
Our 2017 Orator
Nobel Laureate Dr Harold Varmus
The 2017 Graeme Clark Orator is renowned cancer researcher and Nobel Laureate Dr Harold Varmus, currently the Lewis Thomas University Professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine and a Senior Associate at the New York Genome Center.
Professor Varmus’ startling discovery, with Dr J Michael Bishop, that cancer-causing genes within retroviruses originate from normal genes present in normal mammalian cells led to their 1989 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine and launched a golden age in cancer research that continues to grow in impact and momentum. Remarkably, despite his successive senior scientific leadership positions, Varmus has continued his laboratory work, contributing a succession of notable insights into the origins of cancer.
There has been enormous progress since Nixon launched his ‘war on cancer’ in 1971. As Varmus explains much of this stems from the deep understanding that has been gained about the genetics and pathophysiology underpinning individual cancer types:
“Cancers are intimately entwined with basic life processes… New diagnostic categories are based on genetic profiles, not just morphology. Effective prevention occurs through viral vaccines and behavioral changes that reduce exposure to mutagens; screening detects some cancers early enough for curative surgery. Therapeutic strategies are increasingly informed by underlying genomic damage or by the immunological responses to cancer-associated antigens.” He goes on to note that the encouraging reductions in age-adjusted cancer mortality rates have stimulated local, national, and even global efforts to hasten progress against cancer by ‘leaping fences between disciplines, connecting health centers, and interweaving the academic and industrial sectors. “
Varmus pushed vigorously for evidence-based cancer treatment during his tenure as Director of the US National Institutes of Health (1993-1999), President and CEO of New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (1999-2010) and Director of the US National Cancer Institute (2010-2015).
A fearless and skilled advocate for science, Varmus pulls no punches. His op-ed on March 22 in the New York Times against President Trump’s intention to cut the NIH budget was incisive:
‘What can be done by those who are appalled by these threats to our scientific enterprise and feel paralyzed by the apparent imperviousness of the administration to learning from others? Speak up, even when other important issues crowd the political horizon, and frame the issue properly: As I have learned from my own time at the N.I.H., this is not about Republicans versus Democrats. It is about a more fundamental divide, between those who believe in evidence as a basis for life-altering and nation-defining decisions and those who adhere unflinchingly to dogma. It is about a conception of national leadership that connects our economic success and our security to the generation of knowledge, and to the arts and sciences, not just to our military strength.’
Dr Varmus has been a staunch advocate for open science and open publishing, having been a co-founder of open access publisher Public Library of Science (PLoS). He was appointed in 1999 by President Obama as a Co-Chair of the of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. In May 2017, the Mayor of New York appointed Dr Varmus as Co-Chair of his Life Sciences Advisory Council, a US$500M initiative to establish New York as a global leader in life sciences research and development.
The Graeme Clark Oration - Australia's most prestigious free public science event
The Graeme Clark Oration
The Graeme Clark Oration is delivered by global leaders in health and medical science in honour of Prof. Graeme Clark’s pioneering work in developing the bionic ear in Melbourne in the 1970’s. It is recognised as Australia’s most prestigious free public science event and is attended by secondary school students.