Ken Burns's New Cancer Documentary Features Five MD Anderson Docs

The three-part film, which begins airing tonight on Channel 8, tells the history of cancer from its first description in 1550 BCE to the latest treatments.

By Michael Hardy March 30, 2015

A scientist labels each protein in the radio nucleotide sequence of human genes to create a unique DNA profile.

The three-part, six-hour PBS documentary Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies, which premieres tonight on Houston Public Media TV 8, tells the history of cancer from its first known description, in an Egyptian scroll from 1550 BCE, to the latest and most advanced treatments for the disease. So it’s no surprise that the filmmakers—famous producer Ken Burns and director Barak Goodman—spent a fair amount of time at Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center, one of the world’s leading sites for cancer research and treatment.

Five MD Anderson doctors appear in the documentary: Hagop Kantarjian, chair of leukemia; Jim Allison, chair of immunotherapy; Gordon Mills, chair of systems biology; hematologist Emil Freireich; and molecular oncologist Jordan Gutterman. If you tune in tonight for the documentary’s first installment, you’ll see a lot of Gutterman. The episode focuses on a small group of doctors and patients rights’ advocates in the mid–twentieth century who began lobbying the federal government to increase funding for research on new cancer treatments like chemotherapy.

They faced an uphill climb to raise public awareness about the new research—it wasn’t until the 1940s that the word “cancer” was even mentioned on the radio. “People were scared of it,” Gutterman told me. “It was a bit like AIDS, where at first there was a stigma. And there was really nothing you could do about it—it was a death sentence.” One of the people most responsible for shining a spotlight on cancer research was Mary Lasker, a wealthy philanthropist who became interested in the subject after watching her mother’s laundress undergo a radical mastectomy after being diagnosed with breast cancer.

Gutterman first met Lasker in 1973 when he was a young assistant professor at MD Anderson. “She liked my vision of what I was working on, which was the immune system,” he said. “She ended up inviting me up to New York, and I began working with her on a lot of things.” Gutterman served for decades on the committee that awarded the Lasker Awards, the most prestigious American medical prize, and became a trustee of the Lasker Foundation when Lasker died in 1994.

Originally, Lasker focused her efforts on raising charitable donations to fund cancer research, but her husband soon convinced her that private money would only go so far—if she wanted tackle cancer on a larger scale, she would need government funding. Her efforts and those of her fellow activists paid off—in 1971, President Nixon declared a national “war on cancer.” Between 1945 and 1985, the budget of the National Institutes of Health expanded from $2.4 million to $5.5 billion.

In the documentary, which is based on the Pulitzer Prize–winning book of the same name by Siddhartha Mukherjee, Gutterman talks extensively about Lasker, who became one of his closest friends. “She was horrified by how little money was being spent on a disease that couldn’t even be mentioned on the radio. She felt that people weren’t being heard, so she used her connections among the well to do to raise national support for cancer research. In a sense, she was an individual lobbyist for the people. And it shows the power of one person—people have a lot more power than they think, but they have to be committed.”  

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