By Vincent T. DeVita, Jr

For more than 50 years, I’ve had the privilege of working at some of the finest institutions with some of the brightest people of our time, all dedicated to furthering cancer research. My career has taken me from universities such as the University of Michigan and George Washington, to the National Cancer Institute, Memorial Sloan-Kettering, and today to Yale—its cancer center and the university.

I’ve worked during a remarkable time in the history of the fight against cancer; a time that has given us greater advances—and more lives saved— than we ever thought possible. It’s a time that has taught us much of what we need to know, and has already given us many of the tools we need to one day finish the fight.

For more than four decades of my career, I’ve been involved with the nation’s largest voluntary health organization—the American Cancer Society. I am serving as the volunteer president of the organization in the year it celebrates its 100th birthday.

Being around for half of that century allows me the perspective to look at how far we have come today, and how much further we can go tomorrow. And I believe tomorrow holds nearly limitless possibilities.

An Impenetrable Black Box

A century ago, cancer was a mystery, essentially an impenetrable black box. We knew the answers were in there, but we simply couldn’t access them.

The American Cancer Society was founded in 1913, not so long after champagne and carriage rides—anything to distract from the inevitable—were considered “treatment” for cancer patients.

Indeed, for the entire first half of the 20th century, surgery and radiotherapy were the only viable options for cancer treatment, and only a minority of patients could be cured by surgery alone. Surgery and radiotherapy failed because there was no effective treatment for cancer cells that escaped into the bloodstream.

In the years that followed, we saw advances that let us begin to peer inside the black box of cancer, and all along the way, the American Cancer Society was helping shine the light.

The ACS research program was founded in 1946 with $1 million raised by Mary Lasker and over the years has continued to provide a much-needed partnership with the National Cancer Institute. The Society’s research program today comprises a rigorous, world-class peer-review program that ensures the best research receives funding, as well as a world-class intramural research program that continuously works to find the causes of cancer and track progress against the diseases.

In the past 67 years, the ACS has funded more than $3.9 billion in cancer research, including 46 scientists who have gone on to win the Nobel Prize. Examples of the research supported in those early years read like a timeline of major events in cancer history:

  • The lid of the black box was seriously pried open for the first time when a retired scientist at Rockefeller University showed that cellular information was transmitted not by proteins but by DNA. His work led directly to the important discovery of the structure of DNA by James Watson, funded by the American Cancer Society, and Francis Crick, in 1953. They would win the Nobel Prize in 1962 for their discovery.
  • In 1961, Marshall Nirenberg, who had been funded by the ACS early in his career, led a team that broke the genetic code, establishing the central dogma of biology: that information was transmitted from DNA to RNA and resulted in the synthesis of proteins.
  • In 1970, the discovery of reverse transcriptase by Howard Temin, Satoshi Mizutani, and David Baltimore, which showed that information could be transmitted the other way, from RNA to DNA, had a profound influence on medicine but most particularly on cancer medicine. The ACS funded Baltimore and Temin.
  • In 1971, the passage of the National Cancer Act paved the way for profound discoveries in cancer. This was the beginning of the nation’s “war on cancer.” It led to federal funding for cancer research rising from $4.3 million in 1953 to an estimated $5.1 billion in 2012.

It was about this time that I first got involved with the American Cancer Society. Back then, experts projected that cancer incidence and mortality would continue to rise through the year 2000 and beyond.

I didn’t believe it then—and today we know I was right.