“Young people are the promise for the future. Science and technology will help us solve many of our problems,” says Professor Văn-Chí Đặng of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research and Member, VinFuture Prize Council, in a TechNode Global Q&A. He highlights the need for better understanding of science.

“I think the third one would be we need to educate the public. The public needs to understand what we’re doing and be able to believe in science.”

Professor Đặng received his BS in Chemistry (highest honors) from the University of Michigan and was awarded a Ph.D. in Chemistry (high distinction) from Georgetown University.

He received his MD (inducted to Alpha Omega Alpha and Phi Beta Kappa) and internal medicine residency training at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. He trained in hematology-oncology at UCSF, where he did postdoctoral work on the MYC oncogene.

Professor Đặng then returned to Johns Hopkins in 1987 where he established the first mechanistic link between a cancer gene (MYC) and cellular energy metabolism, contributing to the concept that genetic alterations in cancers re-program fuel utilization by tumors and render cancers addicted to certain fuel sources. This conceptual framework contributes to strategies for therapeutic targeting of cancer cell metabolism. His current work extends the role of MYC in cancer metabolism and the role of the circadian clock in metabolism and cancer.

He was Director of the Division of Hematology at Johns Hopkins Hospital (1993-2003) and was appointed Johns Hopkins Family Professor in Oncology Research and Vice Dean for Research at Johns Hopkins. In 2011, he became director of the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and on July 1, 2017, he assumed the position of Scientific Director of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, overseeing Ludwig branches located in the United States, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

He is a member of the National Academy of Medicine, fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, and fellow of the American Association for Cancer Research Academy. He serves as Editor-in-Chief of Cancer Research, an AACR journal.

What are the trends currently driving innovation in Vietnam? What is the relevance of this in a larger context, for instance in Southeast Asia or a global perspective?

I think what I’ve seen so far is the use of large datasets that are being generated in the health system. I think this is an area of growth that there’s a lot of expertise already in Vietnam to really be at the forefront.

For example, I think the VinBigData’s effort is a great effort. I think what the investment that’s going to be needed is a collaborative effort to have, for example, the Vinmec hospital to collaborate with some of the data scientists to build state-of-the-art electronic medical records, so that the care of patients can be data-driven, and also from data science that all the Vietnamese scientists are extremely expert in. I think it’s a great opportunity to lead in this whole area. And the system in Vietnam has all the components to build this and I think that’s something that really needs to be focused on and resourced to make that happen.

What are three key challenges facing technologists and innovators in this post-pandemic environment? How about the practical considerations in addressing these challenges?

I think maybe the question refers to communication challenges, resource challenges, and as well as focus challenges. So my viewpoint as we know that with COVID there’s been a lot of slowdown in terms of activities and connections. I think that we will come out of the COVID pandemic very soon. By April it should quiet down.

I think it’s really a time to really rethink strategically what needs to be done here in Vietnam. My viewpoint is that they already have referred to by using readily available electronic information. So whether that’s clinical records, whether that’s imaging from radiology or pathology, where everything can be digitized, you can take the lead on that one.

I think where there will be needed to be built over time is some of the more laboratory translational research that is done elsewhere, like in the United States where a lot of basic discoveries in the laboratories then be translated into the clinic. And I think this is going to have to be built over time.

I think creating a group of students who are willing to really go down this road to build the capability in Vietnam in about five to 10 years. You’ll be right up there and maybe surpass many other places with collaboration.

The VinFuture Prize has a vision to “catalyze meaningful change in people’s everyday lives through tangible and highly scalable improvements in areas such as productivity, prosperity, connectivity, health, safety, environment, sustainability, as well as their overall happiness.” How would you characterize the impact of such change?

The purpose of the VinFuture Prize is really to reward innovations that either have made a difference to people as you see with the COVID mRNA vaccine, and also those technologies that are anticipated to really meet the goals of the prize in honoring this. For example, one of the prizes is about water availability. One of the prizes went to modern sensors. New ways of preventing diseases is another prize.

I think when we take all these topics together, what the prize really is trying to encourage is that it’s not research for the sake of research. There are other venues to reward that. That’s the discovery science. But what this prize is very uniquely placed among all the big prizes in the world is that it focuses on inventions and innovations that have touched people or will touch people and encourage scientists to go beyond just curiosity.

You could be curious about a question but you may want to ask several questions ahead: Could you make a difference with what you are doing now and maybe begin to start taking your research down that road?

I think VinFuture has already gotten attention in the world. I think that the message of the uniqueness of the prize will hopefully drive brilliant people. Many brilliant people focus on the problem for the problem’s sake. You can be brilliant, you ask a very interesting question, but always remember: When I do this, can I make a difference to humanity and drive my world towards that?

Can you share some interesting data, examples, or case studies from your portfolio that are a good example of how technology can bring about such impactful change?

We should do basic science as many of these achievements have led to measures that have made a difference for people. One of the examples of this is that early on when HIV came around in the early 1980s, we had no drugs. So where do drugs come from? The drugs come from very basic work on retroviruses, not HIV. We know how the retroviruses work. And that quickly led to the development of drugs that we hear that inhibit the replication of the virus, and that’s now made HIV something that you can live with rather than die from.

The other example is that in my field–cancer research. Very early on people didn’t understand how cancer develops. It turns out that cancer results from switches in our DNA that make the cells grow without stopping. By finding some of these switches and people taking it on from there, there’ve now been drugs–at least several doses of drugs that help patients with specific changes. So I think this is another example where you can really make a difference to many thousands if not millions of people by following up on the basic findings and think about how to pile up to make a difference.

How do you see the environment for innovation in the medium term? How about the long-term?

Much of the innovation comes from companies–startup companies that tried to come up with a new idea, new intervention, or new product. So I think that’s where innovations come from. I think some of those paradigms can happen and are happening here in Vietnam. But I think it’s very important that Vietnam is now trying to build up a whole new cadre, a new group of young scientists to probably focus on the very problems that are facing the nation.

Can you share any parting words?

I think that there’s a lot of hope around the world. There’s a lot of hope for Vietnam in particular. It is the hope in the new generation. We need to excite and tell young people this is your world. It is our world now, but it is your world next. Focus on what you need to do to make your life better. It is through science and technology. We know again and again science technologies improve life.

Young people are the promise for the future. Science and technology will help us solve many of our problems. And then I think the third one would be we need to educate the public. The public needs to understand what we’re doing and be able to believe in science.

Great scientists must be humanitarians as well, says VinFuture Prize Co-Chair Professor Albert P. Pisano [Q&A]