An Award-Winning Cancer Researcher Says U.S. Science Has Never Been More Imperiled


WASHINGTON — Around 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, 150 or so people gathered in an otherwise empty National Press Club in downtown D.C.

Hours earlier, in the room down the hall, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) had drawn throngs of press during an appearance before the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Now, none remained. Instead, attendees still in their work attire sat around tables sipping wine and eating moderately moist chicken dinners, waiting to hear from the guest of the night, a doctor from the Boston Children’s Hospital whom few in D.C. — outside those walls — knew of.

Dr. Frederick Alt, a 66-year-old Harvard professor of genetics, is responsible for some of the most consequential breakthroughs in cancer research. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the keynote speaker who preceded Alt onstage, described him as a “luminary in the constellation of cancer fighters.”

That night, Alt was receiving the Szent-Györgyi Prize from the National Foundation for Cancer Research for a twofold breakthrough. Decades ago, Alt upended conventional wisdom of human genome behavior when he discovered that cancer cells had the capacity to genetically amplify themselves, allowing them to spread, become more dangerous and resist treatments. From there, he discovered how chromosomes recognize the “machinery” that keeps their genomes stable — a machinery that cancer cells lack. That led to a better understanding of how to protect DNA from the sort of critical damage caused by many cancers. It was research that another speaker called “foundational.”

Now on the downward arc of his four-decade career, Alt could have been excused if, on Wednesday, he enjoyed a glass or two of wine and took his award in stride: the compliments of an organization whose mission aligns with his research. But the undertone of the evening’s affair was more political, and more dour, than that.

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