A promise to Mom: Researcher, physician talks about preventing, detecting, treating cancer

By John Bell

Have you had your colonoscopy?

If you’re over 50, this was one of the main points a renowned oncology researcher emphasized to employees in the McNamara Headquarters Complex April 10, in an event marking Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month.

Ke Liu, M.D., chief of oncology in the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Tissues and Advanced Therapies, is also an attending medical oncologist at the Washington, D.C., Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Liu’s experience with cancer goes back to his childhood in China, he told the audience. His grandfather died of liver cancer, a deterioration that was devastating to witness for both the young boy and his mother.

Seeing her grieve, young Liu promised his mother he would find a cure for cancer.

He’s still working toward that goal, but treatments for many cancers have made major advances, he said — along with ways to prevent cancer and detect it early when it strikes.

“I think every one of us has been impacted by cancer, whether through ourselves, our relatives or friends,” he told audience members from the four HQC tenant organizations who sponsored the event: the Defense Logistics Agency, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, the Defense Technical Information Center and the Defense Contract Audit Agency.

Liu’s grandfather’s liver cancer was caused by infection with hepatitis B — a virus usually passed from mother to infant that afflicts many people born in in China or Southeast Asia. Many Asian nations were slower to adopt widespread neonatal vaccination for the disease, unlike in the United States, where such protection is almost universal.

The modern prevalence of hepatitis B vaccination, Liu said, has contributed to less attention on a cure for that disease, as opposed to hepatitis C, which has no vaccine (and is spread differently) but for which effective treatments were recently introduced.

Motivated by his promise to his mother and his memory of his grandfather, Liu entered medical school age 15, directly after high school. After receiving his medical degree, he came to the United States in 1990 to continue his studies. He eventually a doctorate in molecular biology from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and received fellowships at the National Cancer Institute and National Institutes of Health.

Although there are more than 100 types of cancer, last year prostate cancer accounted for 21 percent of all new cases in men, Liu noted. In women, breast cancers made up nearly one-third of new cancer diagnoses in 2016. However, for both men and women, lung cancer killed the most people last year — responsible for more than 25 percent of all deaths in both groups.

Liu emphasized the importance of screening and early detection, comparing this to stopping a terrorist cell before it grows and spreads to other areas. “You want to find it early and drop a precision bomb,” he said.

Currently, regular screenings are recommended for colon, breast, lung and cervical or prostate cancer, Liu said. For prostate cancer, he said, there are differing views over how early to begin tests for prostate-specific antigen, known as PSA, and what level represents elevated risk for cancer. But he suggested that family history is important, as is ethnic background, since this cancer is more aggressive in African American men.

At least two of the nation’s commanders-in-chief have survived cancer — one of them in part because of early detection, Liu noted. In 1985, President Ronald Reagan had colon cancer that was detected in stage 1, the earliest stage, via colonoscopy. It was removed with surgery, and Reagan was declared cured by his physician.

By contrast, President Jimmy Carter in 2015 was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic melanoma, the most aggressive and lethal type of skin cancer, at the most advanced stage. However, Carter received surgery, radiation and immunotherapy and was declared cancer free late that year.

Immunotherapy in particular has saved many lives recently, Liu said. Unlike chemotherapy, in which chemicals attack cancer cells but kill healthy cells as collateral damage, immunotherapy induces the body’s own defenses to identify and attack just the cancer cells.

Advances in immunotherapy and the other types of treatment — along with earlier screening — have led to a 23-percent drop in cancer deaths between 1991 and 2012, Liu said, pointing to figures from the American Cancer Society.

And yet he hopes this is only the beginning of a larger trend. Liu compared the cancer “survival curve” over time to a rainbow — one that he hopes one day will not curve back to the earth. The day when no one dies from cancer, Liu said, “is the dream I have kept my whole life and the promise I made to my mother.”