New Imaging Lights the Way for Brain Surgeons: Adam de la Zerda at TEDxStanford (Transcript)

Adam de la Zerda – TRANSCRIPT

“We’re declaring war against cancer, and we will win this war by 2015.” This is what the US Congress and the National Cancer Institute declared just a few years ago, in 2003. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t buy that. I don’t think we quite won this war yet, and I don’t think anyone here will question that.

Now, I will argue that a primary reason why we’re not winning this war against cancer is because we’re fighting blindly. I’m going to start by sharing with you a story about a good friend of mine. His name is Ehud, and a few years ago, Ehud was diagnosed with brain cancer. And not just any type of brain cancer: he was diagnosed with one of the most deadly forms of brain cancer. In fact, it was so deadly that the doctors told him that they only have 12 months, and during those 12 months, they have to find a treatment. They have to find a cure, and if they cannot find a cure, he will die.

Now, the good news, they said, is that there are tons of different treatments to choose from, but the bad news is that in order for them to tell if a treatment is even working or not, well, that takes them about three months or so. So they cannot try that many things.

Well, Ehud is now going into his first treatment, and during that first treatment, just a few days into that treatment, I’m meeting with him, and he tells me, “Adam, I think this is working. I think we really lucked out here. Something is happening.”

And I ask him, “Really? How do you know that, Ehud?”

And he says, “Well, I feel so terrible inside. Something’s gotta be working up there. It just has to.”

Well, unfortunately, three months later, we got the news, it didn’t work. And so Ehud goes into his second treatment. And again, the same story. “It feels so bad, something’s gotta be working there.” And then three months later, again we get bad news. Ehud is going into his third treatment, and then his fourth treatment. And then, as predicted, Ehud dies.

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Now, when someone really close to you is going through such a huge struggle, you get really swamped with emotions. A lot of things are going through your head. For me, it was mostly outrage. I was just outraged that, how come this is the best that we can offer? And I started looking more and more into this. As it turns out, this is not just the best that doctors could offer Ehud. It’s not just the best doctors could offer patients with brain cancer generally. We’re actually not doing that well all across the board with cancer. I picked up one of those statistics, and I’m sure some of you have seen those statistics before.

This is going to show you here how many patients actually died of cancer, in this case females in the United States, ever since the 1930s. You’ll notice that there aren’t that many things that have changed. It’s still a huge issue. You’ll see a few changes though. You’ll see lung cancer, for example, on the rise. Thank you, cigarettes. And you’ll also see that, for example, stomach cancer once used to be one of the biggest killers of all cancers, is essentially eliminated.

Now, why is that? Anyone knows, by the way? Why is it that humanity is no longer struck by stomach cancer? What was the huge, huge medical technology breakthrough that came to our world that saved humanity from stomach cancer? Was it maybe a new drug, or a better diagnostic? You guys are right, yeah. It’s the invention of the refrigerator, and the fact that we’re no longer eating spoiled meats. So the best thing that happened to us so far in the medical arena in cancer research is the fact that the refrigerator was invented. And so — yeah, I know. We’re not doing so well here. I don’t want to miniaturize the progress and everything that’s been done in cancer research.

Look, there is like 50-plus years of good cancer research that discovered major, major things that taught us about cancer. But all that said, we have a lot of heavy lifting to still do ahead of us. Again, I will argue that the primary reason why this is the case, why we have not done that remarkably well, is really we’re fighting blindly here. And this is where medical imaging comes in. This is where my own work comes in. And so to give you a sense of the best medical imaging that’s offered today to brain cancer patients, or actually generally to all cancer patients, take a look at this PET scan right here. Let’s see. There we go.

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So this is a PET/CT scan, and what you’ll see in this PET/CT scan is the CT scan will show you where the bones are, and the PET scan will show you where tumors are. Now, what you can see here is essentially a sugar molecule that was added a small little tag that is signaling to us outside of the body, “Hey, I’m here.” And those sugar molecules are injected into these patients by the billions, and they’re going all over the body looking for cells that are hungry for sugar. You’ll see that the heart, for example, lights up there. That’s because the heart needs a lot of sugar. You’ll also see that the bladder lights up there. That’s because the bladder is the thing that’s clearing the sugar away from our body. And then you’ll see a few other hot spots, and these are in fact the tumors.

Now, this is a really a wonderful technology. For the first time it allowed us to look into someone’s body without picking up each and every one of the cells and putting them under the microscope, but in a noninvasive way allowing us to look into someone’s body and ask, “Hey, has the cancer metastasized? Where is it?” And the PET scans here are showing you very clearly where are these hot spots, where is the tumor. So as miraculous as this might seem, unfortunately, well, it’s not that great. You see, those small little hot spots there. Can anyone guess how many cancer cells are in any one of these tumors?

So it’s about 100 million cancer cells, and let me make sure that this number sunk in. In each and every one of these small little blips that you’re seeing on the image, there needs to be at least 100 million cancer cells in order for it to be detected. Now, if that seemed to you like a very large number, it is a very large number. This is in fact an incredibly large number, because what we really need in order to pick up something early enough to do something about it, to do something meaningful about it, well, we need to pick up tumors that are a thousand cells in size, and ideally just a handful of cells in size. So we’re clearly pretty far away from this.

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And I remember looking at these numbers and being struck by the humonguos difference between where we are today and where we need to be. And saying, I’m an engineer – it was very early in my career – I’m an engineer, let’s see if there’s something I can do here. I started talking to a lot of surgeons, radiologists, and other types of doctors that deal with brain cancer patients, because I was really passionate about brain cancer. And I remember talking to them, and boy, I was just horrified at how archaic medicine is today.

So we’re going to play a little experiment here. I’m going to ask each of you to now play and imagine that you are brain surgeons. And you guys are now at an operating room, and there’s a patient in front of you, and your task is to make sure that the tumor is out. So you’re looking down at the patient, the skin and the skull have already been removed, so you’re looking at the brain. And all you know about this patient is that there’s a tumor about the size of a golf ball or so in the right frontal lobe of this person’s brain. And that’s more or less it.

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