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Shame of a Nation
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The Man Who Knows Too Much
The Culprit is Cancer

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Fall 1998
The Culprit is Cancer
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Slamon is a big, gentle man with soulful brown eyes and a thick, brown mustache threaded with gray. Today, sitting in his barely used office in the Gordon and Virginia MacDonald Research Laboratories building on campus, he's wearing khaki slacks and a pale-blue oxford shirt. He sips a Diet 7-Up as we talk. On top of his rather consuming job, he's busier than ever with media interviews — Newsweek, Nightline, New York Magazine. But he'll take as much time as you need to explain the wonders of molecular biology, the mystifying nature of cancer cells. He is notably down-to-earth, accessible. The patients in his study, some of whom feel they have come back from the dead, admire him openly. One 54-year-old corporate lawyer, whose cancer had metastasized to her liver but who has now returned to work, calls him "truly inspirational."

He is deeply appreciative of the women as well, humbled by their courage. "There's no way to learn how to use a drug in humans without testing on humans," he says emphatically. "So these are really the heroines of the story. We explained the risks. To a person, not one said no. 'I understand it may not help me,' they said, 'but it may help somebody down the line.' It was extraordinary to hear that kind of response."

Fresh out of the University of Chicago, where he earned his M.D. and Ph.D., Slamon came to UCLA in 1979 to pursue a fellowship in oncology. At the time, researchers were beginning to explore the role genetic defects might play in cancer. Slamon was taken with this area of study and, with a small grant from UCLA's Jonsson Cancer Center, began screening genes in the lab. The work, involving cell lines and animal models, was tedious and slow.

Slamon wondered if there wasn't a better way. What if his team looked at cells in human tumors instead? It was a logical idea, but not without risk. "Had I been as sophisticated scientifically as some of my colleagues," he says, "we probably wouldn't have approached the problem that way. In human tissue you don't have 100-percent cancer tissue. You have cancer tissue and many normal cells. So you have to be very careful interpreting your results."

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