Cancer Film Spins Off Program to Boost Research

In In The News by Barbara Jacoby

By: Eric T. Rosenthal


As the public awaits the airing of the first installment of Ken Burns’ PBS three-part, 6-hour series on cancer March 30, the film’s supporters, Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) and PBS, announced Tuesday the “CANCER: Emperor of All Maladies Science Award” — an ambitious complementary educational component intended to help produce future generations of cancer researchers.

The purpose of the program, which will be administered by PBS LearningMedia, is to interest disadvantaged high school students in careers in science with an emphasis on cancer research and offer them one-on-one mentorships with scientists as well as 1-year financial grants.

Initially, annual $1,500 stipends and an electronic tablet will be awarded 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.

Documentary supporters Genentech and Bristol-Myers Squibb, as well as Novartis, have committed funding that will cover the first 3 years. Award recipients will have the opportunity to extend their participation in the program for additional years.

The concept for the program grew out of a series of teleconferences by an Emperor of All Maladies Education Subcommittee chaired by Sherry Lansing, a SU2C co-founder and former Paramount Pictures chief who now chairs the Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF), the nonprofit of which SU2C is a part, and also heads her own charitable foundation.

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 — all production supporters of the cancer series.

“Ken Burns Presents CANCER: THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES,” directed by Barak Goodman, has been touted as the most comprehensive film ever presented about the disease, and expectations are running high by some that the documentary may do for cancer research what the launching of Sputnik in 1957 did for science in America. It will air on PBS stations March 30, 31, and April 1 at 9 p.m. ET.

Otis W. Brawley, MD, chief medical and scientific officer with the American Cancer Society, told MedPage Today: “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 that over the last 80 years cancer has had a special place in the American psyche, and that he hopes the film, which he termed “a very accurate history of the anti-cancer effort,” will 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, a medical oncologist on the faculty of Columbia University Medical Center.

The details of the EMPEROR Science Award Program were unveiled during 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.

Columbia hosted a media conversation about the future of cancer research featuring film executive producer Burns, Goodman, Mukherjee, SU2C co-founder Katie Couric, medical and scientific researchers from Columbia and New York-Presbyterian Hospital, as well as William G. Nelson, MD, PhD, vice chair of SU2C Scientific Advisory Committee, and Dennis Slamon, MD, PhD, leader of the SU2C Breast Cancer Dream Team.

PBS projects have an educational component, according to Krystal Putman-Garcia, director of marketing for LearningMedia, but this project is unprecedented because it provides additional direct financial support and mentoring by established researchers for high school students who might not otherwise be exposed to careers in medical research.

“In general, PBS thinks of education as being in our DNA. We have a commitment to learning and LearningMedia makes use of PBS content, aligns it to standards, and makes it available to teachers through multiple platforms,” she said, adding that this project is unique because it will be bringing in new additional content that will reside in a centralized place overseen by LearningMedia, which will administer the project.

Lansing told MedPage Today 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 3 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 co-founder 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.

During the first subcommittee video conference, Genentech representatives offered to fund the first year, turning the concept into a reality.

Shiva Malek, PhD, associate director of Discovery Oncology, and Kristin Campbell-Reed, director of Corporate and Employee Giving, both at Genentech, recounted during a phone interview why they responded so rapidly to funding the project.

“Genentech has been focusing on helping support scientific education efforts for students (K-12) for years mostly in our own backyard of South San Francisco,” said Campbell-Reed, adding that more than 200 Genentech staff members have served as tutors or mentors and that this program would allow for a much broader effort nationwide.

Malek said that as a Middle Eastern woman in science who has worked as a mentor she understands the importance of serving as a role model and supporting the education of others.

“The award program really wouldn’t be complete without the mentorship component, since that interaction can be a pivotal role to a young person’s career,” she said.

Joseph Leveque, MD, vice president and head of Medical Oncology at Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS), said that BMS’ funding for the second year of the science awards came about spontaneously during one of the Education Subcommittee teleconferences.

Leveque was sitting next to Sherry Lansing, who was proudly discussing her background as a math teacher.

“I made that commitment exclusively based on Sherry’s passion and vision for the project. I had some money in my budget and this was a no-brainer,” he said.

Leveque talked about the importance of education and added that he hoped the awards would inspire students to go into cancer research and treatment as well as related areas in healthcare including nursing and nutrition.

He said that he’d reached a point in his career that the one “tried and true concept and principle is to invest in good people,” and during the interview he committed to serve as an industry mentor for a future awardee.

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.

“Strategically, we would like the educational component to shine as much as the documentary. We are hoping that the educational program will grow and that the documentary helps inspire more students that science matters and how cool it can be.”

She added that SU2C would continue its efforts to support more opportunities for younger people to get involved in 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.

Rosenthal served on the subcommittee to provide a journalist’s perspective.