Hoping for a cure — and a little respect

In a culture that often seems to worship celebrity over accomplishment, “Today” looks this morning at a day in the life of one of the most brilliant and respected scientists in the world. Bert Vogelstein is recognized in the field for making some of the most pivotal discoveries in cancer genetics and colon cancer diagnostics, and he continues to pursue novel therapies to combat the disease. “Today” host Katie Couric talks with Vogelstein as part of a special series called “Confronting Colon Cancer.”

For Dr. Bert Vogelstein, a day at the office is anything but ordinary. “I used to wake up at 4:45, but one of the post-doctorate students realized that 4:44 was a much better time to wake up because it's symmetrical and scientists love symmetry. It sounded like a good idea to me, and so I started waking up one minute earlier,” says Vogelstein, laughing.

Vogelstein hopes the early bird will catch the worm and someday help cure cancer too.

His quest began when he was in pediatrics. Seeing sick children in the cancer ward of the hospital made him want one thing — answers.

“It was so sad because, not only did these beautiful children have cancer, but we as physicians — this was back in the ’70s — we really had no idea of what was going on,” says Vogelstein.

He adds, “Parents would ask us, ‘Why does my child have cancer?’ Truth of the matter is, we didn't know. We didn't know what caused it. So, how can you be hopeful about ever curing something or getting rid of it or preventing it if you have no idea of what's behind it?”

For the past 20 years he and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins-Kimmel Cancer Center have been specializing in colon cancer. First, what causes it.

“Our laboratory has been trying to discover the causes of colon cancer. We're basically geneticists, we study genes. Our hypothesis was that colon cancer is caused by a series of several different mistakes, mutations, alterations,” says Vogelstein.

Translation? Mutation.

“Mutation equals mistake equals defect. Genes have sequences, right? The alphabet for genes is only four letters. It's A, C, G, T.  So all a gene is, there's a string of these As, Cs, Gs and Ts — maybe 10,000 of them and a mutation means that one of those strings of letters, say a G, is changed to an A. That's it,” says Vogelstein.

Got that? Vogelstein and his colleagues are now working on a new DNA stool test that will hopefully encourage even more people to get screened for colon cancer.

Vogelstein says, “At this point it's still research. But there are a lot of promising results if it could be implemented. Then you can spare people a lot of sickness and, hopefully, death.”

What is a day in the life of one of the most brilliant cancer researchers in the world like?  He’s in the office at 5:30 a.m. and begins to prepare for an intense day of discovery. He also gets ready for the army of post-doctoral students who are his soldiers in the war on cancer.

At 7 a.m. they get down to business.

His first experiment is purifying DNA samples from cancers for the students to analyze.

Then meetings.

More experiments.

More meetings.

It's hard to wrap your mind around what these scientists do day in and day out. But just when you think the work couldn't be any more challenging, Vogelstein has a really tough assignment for one of his top students. Hareeth Rahjahgopalen has just completed his M.D. and Ph.D, but before his professor signs off on his thesis, he's told he needs to have just a few more balls in the air.

“We knew that he could meet any intellectual challenge. That'd be too easy for him. So we told him he had to beat one of the faculty members at table tennis [who] is a really good table tennis player,” says Vogelstein.

He adds, laughing, “We would have preferred that he lose and stay in the lab.” 

Then it's back to the lab. Such detailed, tedious work requires another outlet. At the end of the day their cafeteria serves up a little jazz. The band's name is Wild Type. It's the scientific term used to describe the normal version of a gene as opposed to one that is mutated.

Meanwhile, Vogelstein's scientific bent seems to be genetic as well. His two sons are studying at Johns Hopkins — one is a budding biomedical engineer; the other is a future neuroscientist.

Because their Dad spends 17 hours a day in the lab, six days a week — Saturdays he takes a break by reading medical journals for 8 to 10 hours — there is a Vogelstein lunch once a week.

Without fail, Vogelstein shows up for this bit of quality time with his family, which is a good thing because at times, he really is the absentminded professor. He says, “I guess [it's] because I'm thinking about what we can do and what we can do better. Last night I forget to pick up Joshua until I got home. But then I remembered when I got in the driveway.  So I just had to drive back and pick him up.  I'm not a good driver.  I often seem to forget whether red means go or stop.”

He is determined, devoted and always searching.

“Whatever you learn today is never the end. It's just the middle or the beginning of something else. I never go home with a sense of completion.  I often go home with a sense of excitement about what we can do tomorrow.  But that's one of the fun things about science — there's always a challenge to think about,” says Vogelstein.

That's what drives Bert Vogelstein. Like countless other scientists, working quietly in their labs with no publicity, with little fanfare and little sleep, all he hopes for is a cure for cancer — and maybe a little respect. 

Vogelstein says, “It would be great if Americans could feel as proud of their scientific establishment as they do of their hockey teams.”