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Arts & Culture

Cancer: The Emperor Of All Maladies

A scientist labels each protein in the radio nucleotide sequence of human genes to create a unique DNA profile.
Courtesy of © Dan McCoy - Rainbow/Science Faction/Corbis
A scientist labels each protein in the radio nucleotide sequence of human genes to create a unique DNA profile.

Airs Saturdays, April 4 - 18, 2015 at 10 a.m. on KPBS TV

Ken Burns presents CANCER: THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES, a film by Barak Goodman, a three-part, six-hour documentary series directed by award-winning filmmaker Barak Goodman and executive produced by Ken Burns. The project includes the documentary series, nearly two dozen webcast short films by Redglass Pictures and a comprehensive national campaign with engagement partner Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) and an array of other project supporters.

Siddhartha Mukherjee, M.D., author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer," and filmmaker Ken Burns, the executive producer of CANCER: THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES.
Courtesy of Stephanie Berger
Siddhartha Mukherjee, M.D., author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer," and filmmaker Ken Burns, the executive producer of CANCER: THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES.
Filmmaker Barak Goodman, the director of CANCER: THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES.
Courtesy of Ark Media
Filmmaker Barak Goodman, the director of CANCER: THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES.
Dr. Sidney Farber, considered the father of modern chemotherapy, pictured at left with colleagues, c. 1950.
Courtesy of Dana Farber Institute
Dr. Sidney Farber, considered the father of modern chemotherapy, pictured at left with colleagues, c. 1950.
Dr. Brian Druker, who led the development and clinical trials of the cancer drug Gleevec, in a lab, c. 2001.
Courtesy of Oregon Health & Science University
Dr. Brian Druker, who led the development and clinical trials of the cancer drug Gleevec, in a lab, c. 2001.

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A collaboration of Florentine Films, Laura Ziskin Pictures and WETA Washington, D.C., in association with Ark Media, the series is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer" (Simon & Schuster 2010) by Siddhartha Mukherjee, M.D. At the urging of SU2C co-founder, the late Laura Ziskin, the Entertainment Industry Foundation obtained the television and film rights for its Stand Up To Cancer initiative shortly after the book was published.

CANCER: THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES tells the comprehensive story of cancer, from its first description in an ancient Egyptian scroll to the gleaming laboratories of modern research institutions. At six hours, the film interweaves a sweeping historical narrative with intimate stories about contemporary patients, and an investigation into the latest scientific breakthroughs that may have brought us, at long last, within sight of lasting cures. The film comprises the following three episodes:

Episode One: "Magic Bullets" repeats Saturday, April 4 at 10 a.m. - The search for a “cure” for cancer is the greatest epic in the history of science. It spans centuries and continents, and is full of its share of heroes, villains and sudden vertiginous twists. This episode follows that centuries-long search, but centers on the story of Sidney Farber, who, defying conventional wisdom in the late 1940s, introduces the modern era of chemotherapy, eventually galvanizing a full-scale national “war on cancer.”

Interwoven with Farber’s narrative is the contemporary story of little Olivia Blair, who at 14-months old is diagnosed with T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which spreads to her brain and spinal column. The film follows her as she and her parents struggle with the many hardships and decisions foisted upon a cancer patient. She remains in full remission a year after her diagnosis, but is still on her journey to finish her three-year treatment plan.

Episode Two: "The Blind Men And The Elephant" repeats Saturday, April 11 at 10 a.m. - This episode picks up the story in the wake of the declaration of a “war on cancer” by Richard Nixon in 1971 and the search for a cure. In the lab, rapid progress is made in understanding the essential nature of the cancer cell, leading to the revolutionary discovery of the genetic basis of cancer, but few new therapies become available. Not until the late 1990s do advances in research begin to translate into more precise targeted therapies with breakthrough drugs. Following the history during these fraught decades, the film intertwines the contemporary story of an oncologist diagnosed with breast cancer. Her emotional and physical struggles provide a bracing counterpoint to the historical narrative.

Episode Three: "Finding The Achilles Heel" repeats Saturday, April 18 at 10 a.m. - This episode picks up the story at another moment of buoyant optimism in the cancer world: Scientists believe they have cracked the essential mystery of the malignant cell and the first targeted therapies have been developed, with the promise of many more to follow. But very quickly cancer reveals new layers of complexity and a formidable array of unforeseen defenses. In the disappointment that follows, many call for a new focus on prevention and early detection as the most promising fronts in the war on cancer.

But other scientists are undeterred, and by the second decade of the 2000s their work pays off. The bewildering complexity of the cancer cell, so recently considered unassailable, yields to a more ordered picture, revealing new vulnerabilities and avenues of attack. Perhaps most exciting of all is the prospect of harnessing the human immune system to defeat cancer.

This episode includes patients Doug Rogers, a 60-year-old NASCAR mechanic with melanoma, and Emily Whitehead, a six-year-old child afflicted with leukemia. Each is a pioneer in new immunotherapy treatments, which the documentary follows as their stories unfold. Both see their advanced cancers recede and are able to resume normal lives.

Videos from this documentary series are available for online viewing. Cancer Films is on Facebook, and you can follow @CancerFilm on Twitter. Ken Burns is on Facebook, and you can follow @KenBurns on Twitter.

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