The Emperor of All Maladies documentary thrusts cancer into the national spotlight

Emperor of All Maladies

For three nights, many TVs across the nation will be tuned in to PBS to watch a riveting documentary about cancer.

“Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies” is a three-part, six-hour, major television event on PBS presented by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and directed by award-winning filmmaker Barak Goodman. The documentary airs on Chicago’s local PBS station Channel WTTW 11 9-11 pm, Monday, March 30; Tuesday, March 31; and Wednesday, April 1.

Based on the 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee, the series is the most comprehensive documentary on a single disease ever made. This “biography” of cancer covers its first documented appearances thousands of years ago, through epic battles in the 20th century to cure, control and conquer the disease, to a radical new understanding of its essence today. The series explores the current status of cancer knowledge and treatment—the dawn of an era in which cancer may become a chronic or curable illness rather than its historic death sentence in some forms.

The University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center has an impressive history of groundbreaking discoveries in cancer research. Many of these have had a profound impact on the way cancer is detected, diagnosed, treated, and prevented––either directly, or by laying the groundwork upon which current advancements were made possible. They include:

First to Use Hormone Therapy for Cancer Patients

In 1941, Charles Huggins, MD, published the results of a series of experiments on the relationship of testosterone to prostate cancer. His research changed forever the way scientists regard the behavior of all cancer cells and for the first time brought the hope of treating advanced cancers. The concept of hormonal treatment of cancer has since become a mainstay of care for several types of cancer including breast and gynecological cancers. Huggins was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1966.

Targeting Cancer Cells for Effective Therapy

Chicago researchers led by Elwood Jensen, PhD, discovered in the late 1950s that hormones act through steroid receptors on their target cells. This discovery led directly to hormone therapies for breast cancer, a practice credited with saving the lives of thousands of women each year. Jensen won the Lasker Award for this work in 2004.

Making History with Chemotherapy

The University of Chicago is considered as one of the birthplaces of cancer chemotherapy. In 1943, Dr. Leon Jacobson was one of the first to study the effectiveness of the chemical nitrogen mustard as a treatment for terminally ill patients with lymphoma and leukemia. Many drugs still in use against cancer are derivatives of nitrogen mustard.

First Bone Marrow Transplant

The first bone marrow transplant was performed at the University of Chicago in the late 1940s. Jacobson discovered that he could save a mouse whose bone marrow and spleen had been destroyed with radiation by transplanting donated spleen tissue into the mouse. Bone marrow stem cells from the spleen would repopulate the marrow and restore the production of blood cells. Today, our pediatric and adult bone marrow transplant programs treat about 100 patients each year for leukemia, lymphoma, various solid tumors and genetic diseases.

Discovery That Cancer is a Genetic Disease

Janet Rowley, MD, discovered the first consistent chromosome translocations associated with cancer, a finding that helped demonstrate that cancer is a genetic disease. Rowley’s contributions to identifying chromosomal abnormalities in leukemias and lymphomas have changed the way these diseases are diagnosed and treated. Her work eventually led to the development of Gleevec, one of the most successful targeted cancer therapies to date. She received many honors, including both the Lasker Award and the National Medal of Science in 1998 and, in 2009, the Genetics Prize from the Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Collectively, these accomplishment have saved millions of lives. View a more comprehensive timeline of major discoveries.

In more recent discoveries covered here on Science Life and in the local media:

The film presents a timely opportunity to enliven a national conversation about the history of this disease, the personal experience of those afflicted, the groundbreaking research underway, and the quest for a cure. Through these stories, the documentary also shows the importance of basic research in making progress against cancer and sheds light on what it is scientists actually do.

Follow the conversation on Facebook and Twitter by using the hashtag #CancerFilm. The UCCCC (@UCCancerCenter) will be live-tweeting during the event with facts relevant to our institution.

Immunotherapy Twitter chat

On Thursday, April 2 from 12 -1 PM CT, the National Cancer Institute (@theNCI) is also leading a live chat on Twitter about precision medicine, specifically zeroing in on the burgeoning field of immunotherapy. Jason Luke, MD, assistant professor of medicine, will be part of the panel answering questions.

Visit to learn more.

About Jane Kollmer (7 Articles)
I am a writer at the University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center.
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