Director's Notes

Portrait of Tom Misteli, Ph.D.

Just as explorers have used maps for centuries, cancer researchers rely on them daily. We use gene maps to identify new cancer drivers, chart cancer pathways and visualize complex gene expression profiles. We also create three-dimensional maps of tumors to target them with radiation, and we increasingly map the complex spatial and functional heterogeneity of tumors at the single-cell level.

The cover of this issue of Milestones stands symbolically for the many uses of various types of maps in cancer research. But it is more than a symbol. This map of Baltimore records differences in geographical distributions of social vulnerability, which includes cancer. It dramatically highlights the pressing issue of health disparities. Differences in cancer outcomes vary widely in local and global populations based on complicated socioeconomic factors, race/ethnicity and geographic location. While access to care is a primary cause for health disparities in cancer outcomes, scientists are discovering that other factors, including the environment and disease predispositions, contribute as well. Eliminating disparities in cancer treatment and care is a major goal in CCR.

One example of our recent efforts in this area is a study into the molecular foundation of health disparities in prostate cancer featured in this issue of Milestones, which every year highlights some of the most creative, innovative and impactful work of CCR researchers.

Despite the challenges of an ongoing global viral pandemic, activities at CCR have continued unabated. Our advances in the past year cover a broad range of cutting-edge topics in cancer research, including progress in basic studies on how genomes protect themselves from damage and new insights into how tumor growth is affected by the host tissue, by the bacterial microbiome of a patient and the age of a patient. We have also made major progress in precision medicine by inventing new ways to accurately diagnose cancers, optimize therapy options for patients and predict treatment responses.

Our ultimate goal remains the development of new treatment options for patients and expanding the representation of patients in our clinical trials. These efforts culminated in the past year in the approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration of no fewer than four new drugs developed by CCR researchers. In addition, clever new clinical and surgical technology and new ways to harness the immune system for cancer therapy bring new options and hope to patients.

Maps help guide and chart our discoveries in cancer research, but even the best maps cannot predict what is ahead. Discovery inherently contains an element of serendipity and adventure. At CCR, we fully embrace the challenges and the opportunities of the unknown as we continue to explore paths towards ending cancer as we know it.

Tom Misteli
NCI Center for Cancer Research