Bert Vogelstein had no idea that a young girl would start him on a journey that would forever change humanity’s understanding of cancer. He was an intern fresh out of medical school when the girl’s parents brought their daughter to Johns Hopkins to find out why she’d grown so pale and started bruising so easily. The tests revealed cancer. When Vogelstein delivered the news to the stunned parents, they asked how and why a preteen could develop cancer.
Decades later, Vogelstein can still remember how terrible it was to be unable to provide an answer. “I just threw up my hands and said, ‘I don’t know. Nobody knows. It’s just this total black box, this thing that just strikes people randomly, when they shouldn’t be struck.’ And, right then and there, it became clear to me that if I wanted to spend my life on a puzzle, on a problem that I could apply my skills toward, that was going to be a good one,” he recalled.
Vogelstein’s epiphany launched a lifelong hunt for the root causes of cancer, a hunt that unveiled in 1989 the most important cancer suppressor gene, and went on to unearth much of what we know about the mutations found in many tumor types.
Vogelstein has published more than 450 papers since 1976, and those papers have been cited more than 200,000 times—a tally that illustrates their incredible impact. Vogelstein’s work not only launched a wave of genetic research around the globe, but also helped lay the groundwork for today’s era of targeted assays and therapeutics.

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