March 18, 2021

The Spirit of Innovation: Building a Scientific Foundation to Successfully Fight the War on Cancer

When the National Cancer Act was signed into law in 1971, there was one big issue: researchers and scientists really didn’t know that much about the inner workings of normal and diseased cells.

So when the federal directive came down to find new cures for cancer, it was a pretty big ask and progress didn’t happen as rapidly as people expected. 

Richard Burgess, PhD, likened the situation to standing next to a railroad track, and being asked to stop an oncoming train with nothing but a wrench in your hand.

“There’s no way you’re stopping it,” he said. “You could throw that wrench at that train a million times and never even come close to stopping it. That’s the way our knowledge was back then.”

But if you studied the diagrams, and the inner workings of the train, you could potentially build a foundation of basic knowledge necessary to achieve the goal. “You could recognize that there are certain vulnerable spots in the train where if you stuck a wrench in there, where the gears are coming together, you could stop the train,” he said. “And that’s exactly what’s happened over the last 50 years.”

As he likes to say: “Today’s basic research produces tomorrow’s new treatments.”

With a background in biochemistry and molecular biology, Burgess came to the University of Wisconsin in 1971 to work in the McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research – the same year President Nixon signed the National Cancer Act into law. Funding from that legislation was used to help get his lab off the ground.

“It was a grant to McArdle that supported several activities,” Burgess said. “The plan was that another researcher and I, our labs would be equipped and partly supported by money from this grant.”

At a time when most researchers were hired and were immediately pushed into writing grant applications to fund their work, Burgess was able to hit the ground running. “Basically, I came and it was like I had already been part of a successful grant,” he said. “And the money was there and it must have supported me for a couple of years.”

That allowed Burgess to begin studying tumor viruses, but also, to pick up where he left off on research he had started prior to coming to Madison. Having discovered the first positive transcription factor – a protein that effectively turns genes “on” – Burgess would gradually build a research operation dedicated to understanding the ins-and-outs of the protein machinery of gene regulation.   

“The only way you can really understand what’s wrong with a cancer cell is to know what a normal cell is like,” he said. “And then look at the differences.”

This became more and more important as researchers realized that cancer really was a disease of the altered genes and gene regulation. With a focus on RNA polymerases, Burgess turned to an unlikely source – bacteria – to further his research. Specifically, he began studying the transcription factors found in E. coli.

“You didn’t have to be studying a tumor in order to be studying gene regulation,” Burgess said. “This is a very fundamental process in biology, and it’s very similar between humans and bacteria. So things that we learned studying the bacterial enzyme informed us about how this complex process worked in humans.”

Once the differences between normal and abnormal cells were better known and understood, they could be exploited. This enabled biomedical researchers to devise new methods of targeting cancers – methods more precise and less destructive than chemotherapy, which destroys rapidly growing cells, both good and bad. This has led to the creation of so-called targeted therapies, which hone in on proteins found only found on cancer cells. Finding new targets – and exploiting them – continues to be an ongoing priority in oncology research.

Burgess would go on to found the UW-Madison Biotechnology Center in 1984 to further this work. Among other things, it provides researchers at the UW Carbone Cancer Center with access to services and information to translate biotechnology discoveries into clinical applications.   

Now an Emeritus Professor of Oncology, Burgess cheers for his younger colleagues who are working to fulfill the promise of the National Cancer Act. He’s quick to point out that there’s still plenty of work to be done, but he’s also seen tremendous progress in the war on cancer – and says we’re getting closer and closer to that eventual goal of completely stopping the train, for many different types of cancer.

“There are still going to be cancers that will be a problem for decades, but there are others that already are or soon are going to be treatable,” he said. “I mean, not just extending the life for a few weeks or months, but really treatable. I’m very optimistic.”

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