Propelling Science, Transforming Oncology Research: Honoring Bert Vogelstein, M.D., Winner of the 2015 Dr. Paul Janssen Award for Biomedical Research

By William N. Hait, M.D., Ph.D.

In the past two decades, oncology research has transformed our approach to treating patients affected by cancer. Scientists are now able to sequence entire cancer genomes within an individual patient, which has resulted in more precise and effective treatments.

This approach and the advances that ensued are the result of a massive investment in cancer research conducted within universities, research institutes and biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies throughout the world. A notable leader in this effort is Dr. Bert Vogelstein. He and his colleagues formulated the idea that cancer is caused by sequential mutations of specific genes and used human tissues to test this hypothesis. By elucidating the molecular basis for certain forms of cancer, Dr. Vogelstein has advanced our understanding of how cancer develops, and has provided the basis for a great deal of the work that we now refer to as personalized or precision medicine. In fact, when investigators uncover sequential changes in the progression from normal to malignant, they often refer to this as a “Vogelgram”.

Dr. Vogelstein and his team identified the genes responsible for hereditary colorectal cancers, leading to unprecedented insights into the genetic and biochemical events that initiate solid tumors. For these and numerous other achievements, Dr. Vogelstein has received many honors, and most recently has been named the winner of the 2015 Dr. Paul Janssen Award for Biomedical Research.

Dr. Paul was fond of asking his research staff a daily question, “What’s new?” In seeking to challenge the status quo, he motivated those with whom he worked through a steadfast commitment to science and an unmatched intellectual tenacity. Dr. Vogelstein’s research, drive and passion are the embodiment of Dr. Paul’s vision to fearlessly pursue our understanding of disease and to develop novel solutions to improve and extend life for patients.

I have had the privilege of knowing Bert since our days at the University of Pennsylvania, where he not only excelled academically but also as a member of the Penn tennis and squash teams. His work set the standard for cancer research, moving away from the study of immortal cell lines to the deep interrogation of human tissues.

Cancer continues to challenge researchers from academia and industry to pursue new ways of thinking and new avenues of inquiry as we seek to develop solutions for the 14 million new patients affected by cancer diagnosis each year. We at Janssen are committed to building on the work of Dr. Vogelstein, who showed us that the origins of cancer begin many years before the onset of disease and provides us with the tools to intercept cancer before it ever becomes an illness.

Empowered by scientific breakthroughs, spurred on by researchers like Dr. Vogelstein, we enter a new era of hope and promise for cancer patients.

william_hatiWilliam N. Hait, M.D., Ph.D. is the Global head of Janssen Research and Development, LLC.