Reflections from the Dean

News & Events

Thomas Schwenk

November is an exciting month for many reasons. As the temperatures get cooler and the days get shorter, our students are anticipating the end of the semester, and the spirit of the holiday season is palpable.

At UNR Med, November also features the Healthy Nevada Speaker Series, a free community event that brings some of medicine's most brilliant minds to the University to talk health and science. This year, I was proud to welcome esteemed oncologist, historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Siddhartha Mukherjee, M.D.

Following on the publication of his highly-acclaimed second book, The Gene: An Intimate History, Dr. Mukherjee presented an enthralling lecture on genetic science and technology and how, together, they are transforming medicine and society. While taking us through the history of genetics and medicine, he continued to point us to the future, asking tough questions and reminding us that finding a balance between the extraordinary benefits of cutting-edge technology and understanding the profound ethical dilemmas created by that same technology makes today a "strange and exciting time to be a doctor."

An aspect of Dr. Mukherjee's lecture and our following Q & A session that I found particularly fascinating was the incredible importance of creating a scientifically-literate public who will be able to understand the implications of this technology for both individual patients and society as a whole.

In addition to the lecture, Dr. Mukherjee was very generous with his time in meeting with our medical students to discuss the future of medicine, and how to understand this technology and its uses, as well as the impact on healthcare disparities.

Whether or not you were one of over 900 attendees at Dr. Mukherjee's presentation, the following Q & A will give you a bit of insight into his work and his point-of-view.

UNR Med: You take incredibly complex subjects and make them easily understandable for someone without a medical degree. Why have you chosen to write for a general audience, as opposed to more typical academic or scientific writing? What kind of feedback do you receive for this type of writing?

Dr. Mukherjee: I feel it's absolutely necessary to communicate both advances and the complexity of medicine and science to a general audience. Science has such enormous public impact-on our daily lives, on what we do and how we think about ourselves-that we need to be able to talk about scientific ideas, not just in the lab or the clinic, but in a much broader realm.

UNR Med: You released the Emperor of All Maladies in 2010. What has been the biggest breakthrough in cancer research or treatment since then?

Dr. Mukherjee: Immunotherapy is increasingly being used to treat cancer. In prevention, the role of inflammation in the induction of cancer has emerged. There's also new data on the area that we work on-cancer's seed versus soil, the interactions between cancer cells and the environment that they exist within. There will be new drugs and prevention mechanisms based on these advances.

UNR Med: Would you choose to have your genome sequenced and be informed of the results? Do you believe those results would be truly confidential?

Dr. Mukherjee: At present, I have decided not to have my genome sequenced. As we learn more and more about genetic risk, I would certainly consider it, but it's a little too early in my case. This might not apply to others; they might have genetic risks that really require careful investigation. And yes, I think the only way to move forward is to keep the information confidential.

UNR Med: What did early physicians, such as Hippocrates, understand about cancer and heredity? What would you like to tell these early physicians about medicine and the cause of disease?

Dr. Mukherjee: Early doctors had a rather vague and metaphorical understanding of cancer and heredity. If these doctors and scientists hear about the advances of today, they would be flabbergasted. Cancer as a genetic disease, and heredity information carried by the code-bearing double helical molecule: they would not know how to even conceptualize this information. We have come a long way.

UNR Med: What do you believe to be the balance of biology vs. choice in determining human behavior?

Dr. Mukherjee: Biology is not destiny, but it has a powerful effect on shaping who we are. Genes, environments and chance interact to produce human behavior. All three are important.

UNR Med: What is the next big topic in human biology or biological science that you want to study and write about?

Dr. Mukherjee: I want to write about the immune system and the history of immunology.

UNR Med: How can we reconcile the increasing divide between those who receive high levels of technology-intense personalized medicine and those who receive no medical care at all nor benefit from the many available preventive and health promotion services?

Dr. Mukherjee: It's an absolutely important arena to consider as we think about personalized medicine. We don't want to drive further rifts through society.

It is a treat and privilege to bring experts of Dr. Mukherjee's caliber to our community. We are already planning for next year!

Media Contacts

Julie Ardito, APR
Senior Director, Advancement and Engagement
Office: (775) 784-6006

Tessa Bowen
Communications Manager, Advancement and Engagement
Office: (775) 682-9254

The University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine is a community-based, research-intensive medical school with a statewide vision that has served Nevada for 50 years. The state's first public medical school, UNR Med fosters a healthy Nevada through excellence in medical education, medical care, research and community engagement, within a culture of respect, compassion and inclusion. Through targeted growth and investment in research, clinical services, education and outreach, UNR Med is improving the future of health care. For more information, visit our 50th anniversary website.