"Dr. John Reed"
Will Cancer Ever be Cured? Dr. John Reed of the Burnham Institute Answers

December 29, 2011, Judd

Every day at 3:30 in the morning, John Reed, MD, PhD wakes up, shakes off the cobwebs from less than six hours of sleep, enters his virtual office in his Rancho Santa Fe home, and fires up his neural synapses with some coffee. One of the smartest men on the planet, as well as one of the most influential scientists of the last decade, Reed will spend the next three hours writing articles for science journals as well as grant proposals to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This ungodly hour will be the most productive part of his 8O-hour work week.

Reed is ranked the number one most cited research scientist of the decade, 1995-2005, in the field of General Biomedicine (according to Thomson Scientific’s Essential Science Indicators). Reed also somehow manages to squeeze time into his day to serve as president and CEO of the Sanford-Burnham Institute, one of the top cancer research facilities in the world and the leading research facility in the study of cellular death, or apoptosis as it’s known in scientific vernacular.

Every day, over 50 billion cells commit suicide within us. Reed’s pioneering research has unraveled the mysteries of both how and why some cells die on schedule and others refuse to die. Those cells that act immortal lead to cancer and other chronic diseases. He came up with an idea in the mid-1990s to develop synthetic DNA to shut off the immortal function of cancerous cells. This technology was purchased by a pharmaceutical company, Genta, formerly based in San Diego (now in New Jersey). Genta then developed the drug Genasense, the first DNA-based cancer drug to pass phase III FDA clinical trials.

Genasense will be up for approval by the FDA and the European Union this summer. If it passes, it has the potential to treat millions afflicted with cancer. From his office, Reed optimistically talks about the healing potential of Genasense. It’s a late, rainy Friday afternoon. Reed has been just informed by his wife, Muffy – a philanthropist who has chaired Burnham’s yearly fundraising gala for the last five years – that one of their three sons, Tyler, 15, has just broken his collarbone playing lacrosse. (Reed’s two other sons are Hunter, 17, and Courtland, 12.) “I’m really excited about the potential of Genasense,” says Reed, staying positive despite the bad news. “It’s an innovative drug that will convince the cells to die as opposed to murdering the cells through radiation.”

It’s rare that scientists invent a drug that gets to market. Reed’s creation will target a gene that is responsible for causing half of all cancers.

“Genasense has been empirically effective on myeloma and other cancers, such as melanoma, leukemia, lymphoma, and cancers of the lung and colon,” says Reed, who also mentions the drug’s efficacy on prostate cancer.

Tonight, Reed is scheduled to have one of his several weekly philanthropic-related dinner meetings, but not until he checks in on the condition of Tyler. Those that know Reed attest to his dedication as a father and husband.

“My life consists of a lot of meetings,” says Reed. The dinner meetings are crucial to raising funds for the innovative research that Burnham produces. “With Burnham’s operating budget of $85 million, we need to move faster with our scientific breakthroughs to initiate new lines of research.”

Some of those lines of research are of the human embryonic stem cell variety. Under Reed’s direction, Burnham has become part of the San Diego quartet of research institutions putting this city on the map as one of the leading innovators of stem cell research. (Even more so after Hwang Woo-Suk’s research at the World Stem Cell Hub in Seoul was discovered to be fabricated.)

The research facilities of Scripps and Salk, as well as UCSD, have collaborated with Burnham, thus forming the San Diego Consortium for Regenerative Medicine. This syndicate will finally provide the catalyst that will sidestep President Bush’s 2001 decision not to allow further federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research beyond the original 22 lines.

Never mind the debate surrounding the use of embryos in research – Reed is excited about the imminent gold rush of applications that will result from human embryonic stem cell research. Like many other scientists and researchers, he is frustrated with the federal budget cuts imposed by the Bush administration.

“The amount of funds we’ve raised has been enough to sustain us on a hand-to-mouth existence,” says Reed. “We’re producing at a much slower pace than our potential, especially since Proposition 71 (which voters approved in November 2004 to appropriate $3 billion in state funds for stem cell research) is tied up in the courts.”

Until that issue is resolved, says Reed, Burnham is forced to operate without federal and state funds for embryonic stem cell research. “We’re totally dependent on community philanthropy,” says Reed, one of 29 Proposition 71 committee members.

Despite vying extra hard for Uncle Sam’s dollars, Burnham “does such high-quality collaborative work, that we’ve been able to enjoy five consecutive years of double-digit growth in NIH funding,” says Reed.

Reed’s talent for assembling team-player scientists has catapulted Burnham into the position of being one of only eight national centers specializing in cancer drug discoveries.

“I prefer not to go after 11 quarterbacks,” says Reed; “I’d like to think of what we have here at Burnham as a symphony of scientific synergy.” Erkki Ruoslahti, PhD, MD served as Burnham’s president and CEO for ten years and hand picked Reed to succeed him.

“The reason why I picked Reed,” explains Ruoslahti, “was that, in addition to his exceptional talent and leadership qualities, I felt he was going to take Burnham to the next level while preserving what Reed and I both thought was the main advantage we had over most other institutions in our business: a lean organization.”

Burnham is free of bureaucracy, unlike, say, a university system, such as the University of Pennsylvania, where Reed received his PhD. Reed was a young hotshot in the biomedical research world. He could have worked anywhere after his career in Philadelphia, which included a stint at the Wistar Institute.

“I was fed up with the large university bureaucracy. I was attracted more towards streamlined biomedical research facilities,” says Reed, who was also scientific cofounder of IDUN Pharmaceuticals, now part of drug behemoth Pfizer.

How does Reed, who has been at Burnham since 1992, have the energy to accomplish so much? He exercises like he works: hard, with intensity and focus. Reed trains with a personal fitness trainer, swims twice weekly, runs two or three times per week, and bikes. Reed says that cell death research is a microscopic way of looking at the yin-yang relationship of life and death.

“Working in the field of apoptosis has provided me with a better appreciation for the concept of renewal,” says Reed. “Every person loses enough cells every year to equal their own body weight, so apoptosis represents cycles of renewal and encouragement that you’re not stuck with the same body year after year.”

Does Reed believe there will one day be a cure for cancer?

“I believe there will be treatments that will enable people to live with cancer and keep it at bay,” he predicts. “Cancer will one day be a long-term condition that people will be able to live with.”

Judd Handler is a freelance writer and wellness/lifestyle coach in Encinitas, California. He surfs uncrowded, fun reef breaks; plays instrumental alternate-tuning guitar; goes hiking in the backcountry; and is amazed on a daily basis by just being alive.