Cancer pioneer still working to cut deaths
WILD GEESE: Ralph DeVere White, Director UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center, CaliforniaEven after 40 years of treating cancer, Ralph de Vere White believes more can be done
Ralph DeVere White heads up a team at one of the world’s leading universities, where he is putting together a plan to reduce the number of deaths by cancer.
From the early days of treatment, when most patients were too far gone by the time they were diagnosed, he has witnessed many improvements in how the disease is tackled. However, after almost 40 years of treating the disease, White believes there is still much that can be done to reduce the number of people it kills every year.
Having graduated in medicine from UCD, White headed to America to study urology in 1974. It was not meant to be a permanent move but, almost four decades later, he has learned to call the US home.
“At that time there was no training in Ireland for urology, so I came here. It was my expectation to go back to St Vincent’s in Dublin as a urologist once I had finished.”
Shortly before he was due to return to Ireland, he got word that the job had fallen through, so he travelled to Boston.
He did the American medical exams, got a job at Boston University Hospital and spent three years there concentrating on urological cancers and research. A stint working in New York was followed by a move in 1984 to the University of California, Davis, where he was offered the position of chair of urology.
He was instrumental in having the then fledgling cancer centre designated as a National Cancer Institute and, in 1996, he was asked to take charge.
Under his guidance, the institute’s funding has grown from $17 million (€13.6) when he started, to $112 million last year. This year Davis was named a comprehensive cancer centre, allowing it to expand its work in developing new treatments in the ongoing worldwide battle against the disease.
“We have done a good job at picking up cancers earlier. Clearly when you look at the drop in the death rate from prostate, colon and breast cancer, treating them early has reduced deaths. There is no doubt about it.
“When I started, people being treated for testis cancer would undergo chemotherapy and they were in hospital for six to nine days and were very sick. People now do chemotherapy as an outpatient. We have made huge improvements in lowering toxicity.”
Cancer treatment remains largely ineffective in cases where early detection methods have failed or not been used. That, White says, is where cancer research must improve. While new treatments are being developed all the time, he believes it is also important to focus on how existing treatments can be put to better use. One area identified has been how different ethnicities are affected by the disease.