A Career Committed to Defeating Cancer
After Dr. Stephen Chanock’s brother and best friend, Foster, was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer, he dedicated his life to solving the problems of cancer.
For Stephen J. Chanock, MD, FAACR, director of the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and a member of the 2023 class of Fellows of the AACR Academy, science runs in the family.
His father was the late Robert M. Chanock, MD, longtime head of the Laboratory of Infectious Diseases at the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). He identified the human respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), the biggest cause of acute lower respiratory tract infection in infants and young children worldwide, and was widely hailed as one of the top virologists in the world.
The Chanock family lived a mile from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) campus in Bethesda, Maryland, and his father would take Stephen to NIAID’s headquarters if he had to work on the weekends.
NIH Building 7, which no longer exists, was “a regular Saturday morning playground” for young Stephen, he recalls. However, his father’s commitment to medicine didn’t immediately transfer to him.
“The last thing I wanted to do was go into medicine,” Dr. Chanock said. His father’s other great passion, however, was music, and that stuck. He played the piano and harpsichord and, when he went off to Princeton University, it was to study music composition.
Eventually, though, he changed his mind and was admitted to Harvard Medical School. Then something occurred that cemented his dedication to a career in medicine: his older brother and closest companion, Foster, in whose wedding Stephen had been best man, was struck in his mid-twenties with a rare type of cancer – synovial cell sarcoma. Foster was treated at the NIH Clinical Center.
“My entire first year of medical school was shuttling between Boston and Washington and checking out my beloved brother, who was my best friend,” he said. Foster died within a year.
After medical school, Dr. Chanock trained in pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. He was recruited to NCI by Phillip A. Pizzo, MD, who had cared for Foster several years before, and worked for the first several years of his NCI career in the same oncology wards where his brother was treated.
“I felt I had to do something, and I dedicated my life to doing that,” he said. “I’m not going to rest. I’m going to keep going every day that I can work to try and solve the many different problems that are part of the cancer paradigm.”
A longtime member of the AACR, Dr. Chanock received the AACR-American Cancer Society Award for Research Excellence in Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention in 2021.
“I appreciate the opportunity to interact with others. The AACR is a very important instrument in bringing cancer research globally together, not just nationally,” he said. “It’s a forum to bring people together. It’s really essential.”
“The way in which we solve the complexity of the conundrum of cancer is by team science,” he added. “And that means you’ve got to roll up your sleeves, you’ve got to argue, you’ve got to disagree, and you have to look for consensus, which isn’t always easy in science.”
In time, Dr. Chanock‘s interest shifted from clinical research to the basic level, particularly the discovery and characterization of cancer susceptibility regions in the human genome.
“My career over the last 25 years has really been focused on two fundamental questions,” he said. “One is, what is it about the human genome and the variation in the human genome that’s important for cancer risk? Why does somebody get cancer and someone else not get it? Why do two people with breast cancer have very different outcomes?”
“The second part is, how and why do we all not get cancer all the time?” he asks. “Why is it that we’re protected, that two-thirds of us are not going to have cancer?”
Questions like these led him to population science and large-scale genomic studies.
“Now I run a large program with epidemiologists and geneticists and statisticians and lab people all working together,” he said. This is the Laboratory of Genetic Susceptibility, of which he is the director. The team produces genome-wide association studies (GWAS) that help researchers understand cancer risk.
NCI GWAS research covers topics such as sex-related effects on immunotherapy response, new genetic loci associated with susceptibility to Ewing sarcoma and prostate cancer, and multiple risk factors for renal cell carcinoma.
“I think the ability to take the information from the genome-wide associations, and the polygenic risk scores able to be generated in these, will be very important in stratifying risk in the population,” he said.
Dr. Chanock has also focused on some specific situations, such as risk resulting from the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident in 1986. He and his team studied papillary thyroid cancer in persons exposed before birth or as children to iodine-131, or from unexposed children born a year or later after the accident. Among other things, it revealed radiation dose-dependent enrichment of fusion drivers, nearly all of which occurred in the MAPK pathway.
“What is it about the radiation and how the signatures or the vestiges of the radiation either drive or continue to be seen in those individuals who develop cancer and those who don’t?” he ed. “So, these kinds of environmental questions are really important.”
While Dr. Chanock leads high-level studies involving tens of thousands of records, he still makes time for individuals. Since 1995, he has been the medical director of Camp Fantastic, a summertime program for pediatric cancer patients sponsored by NCI and Special Love, Inc.
“I honestly feel blessed to be in the presence of the 100 kids every summer,” he said. “You just see acts of kindness and fun and kids just wanting to be kids.”
“What it’s taught me is that the value of life is in the interactions and the richness and depth,” he said. “I’ve met presidents and Nobel laureates and top-notch classical musicians, and many of them are wonderful people. But some of the more memorable people I’ve met only lived to be ten or 12. You want to do something about it, and you want to be part of that solution. That’s why Camp Fantastic resets my compass every year.”