A Formidable Foe: Cancer in the 21st Century

February 28, 2017


It has been called "The Emperor of All Maladies." A scourge familiar to the ancient Egyptians that still elicits fear. The foe: cancer.

The last century saw enormous progress in our understanding of cancer biology as well as prevention, diagnosis, and treatment. Cancer mortality rates have been steadily declining in the United States since the early 1950s and each successive decade of Americans born from 1925 to 1995 experienced a lower risk of cancer death than their predecessors. Successes include lowering exposure to environmental toxins, tobacco, and radiation. Despite some impressive advances, enormous challenges remain in understanding and treating cancer. The decline in cancer death rates is slowing. Some cancers still remain largely incurable.

Our improved understanding of cancer has uncovered many new questions about this broad collection of diseases. Can different cancers be reclassified based upon their genetic lesions? Can the body's own immune system be harnessed to aid in the fight? Where generations past fought cancer with scalpels and injections, this generation of healthcare professionals and patients is looking deep into our cells and our genes to better understand and combat these diseases. Will these advances be incremental or transformational? Are the newest treatments and technologies applicable and scalable to all cancers or are they "one-hit wonders" destined to help comparatively few patients?

In 2016, President Obama announced a new "Cancer Moonshot" with a goal of, in the words of Vice President Biden, "fundamentally chang[ing] the trajectory" of how our society and world understands and combats cancer. America's research universities and academic medical centers are critical to this effort. At Penn's Abramson Cancer, more than 90,000 outpatients and 11,800 inpatients are treated each year, including through the Roberts Proton Therapy Center, the largest and most advanced facility of its kind in the world. With partners across the nation and the world, Penn's Cancer Immunotherapy Research Program has been developing novel immune therapies for the treatment of cancer, including cancer vaccines, immune modulatory drugs, and cell-based therapies with state-of-the-art technologies including gene therapy, monoclonal antibodies, and T cell engineering.

Join Penn President Amy Gutmann and a panel of distinguished guests and Penn experts for a discussion of the past, present, and future of cancer research and treatment. What progress has been made in the fight against cancer? What are the most difficult questions and challenges ahead? What is the role of leading universities and academic medical centers like Penn in overturning the tyranny of this "emperor of all maladies?"

Penn: University of Pennsylvania

The David and Lyn Silfen University Forum series was generously endowed by the late University Trustee David M. Silfen and his wife Lyn to foster conversation and debate regarding important contemporary issues.

Amy Gutmann is President of the University of Pennsylvania and Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Professor of Communication.