Former U.S. ambassador on new mission: Stopping cancer |

Former U.S. ambassador on new mission: Stopping cancer

John Colson

A former U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands this week told a tale of the joys and sorrows he has experienced as a cancer survivor, and of the surprise turns that brought him to speak in Aspen.

When K. Terry Dornbush heard he was being offered the Netherlands posting by then-President Bill Clinton, in the fall of 1993, his reaction was “absolute jubilation,” he told an audience of cancer experts Sunday.

But within weeks, he also received much more disturbing news ” he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer.

That was the beginning of a journey he’d never expected to take. But it has lead him to the inner workings of cancer-related research and to a fairly new startup company that, some believe, is the field’s most promising development in a long time.

Dornbush spoke to an audience of scientists at the Aspen Cancer Conference, held at Paepcke Auditorium. The venue is in its 20th consecutive year of seminars and informational talks about what some consider the scourge of modern humanity.

Dornbush said he was 59 when he was appointed ambassador. He was about to begin language courses and other pertinent instruction in advance of the posting when he learned of the diagnosis.

And if that weren’t enough on his mind, he said, his daughter was about to be married.

Dornbush postponed the language classes and ambassadorial training, underwent surgery and other treatments, and went to the wedding. A while later, he took up his new job and, thinking he was cancer free, went about his life.

He noted that he told no one of his encounter with cancer at the time, worried that it might affect his professional relationships and thus his job performance. But such feelings about privacy and unwanted implications would change abruptly some 12 years later.

Dornbush, his voice quavering, spoke after Nobel laureate Harold Varmus, president of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Dornbush had high praise for the institution, saying that when he learned recently that his cancer had returned, the treatment he received there offered him new hope for the future.

“There can be good evolving from cancer,” Dornbush told his audience.

He noted the irony of his having been invited to speak at this conference during a conversation with an organizer, only to learn within weeks that tests showed indications of cancer, and the need to renew his battle against the disease.

“I believe now that disclosure can produce positive results,” he said. He added that in going public about the disease he has learned more about it, and become more involved with the search for cures, than he might have otherwise.

His newfound involvement has led to his support for an organization called Iconic Therapeutics, Inc., based in Atlanta, Ga., which is developing what is being touted as a promising new cancer treatment known as “iconic molecules.”

According to the company’s mission statement on its website, it is “developing proprietary I-cons, proteins that trigger the immune system to target and destroy unwanted cells in the body.”

He said he first read about the iconic molecules in a “lay medical journal” put out by Johns Hopkins University, which described the molecules’ ability to kill cancer cells. His interest piqued, he called a friend and researcher at Frie University in Amsterdam, Holland, and got him in touch with Johns Hopkins. That ultimately led to a collaborative research project that boosted the prospects of iconic molecules to a new level.

“That seemed to me to be a propitious outcome of something that began as two pages of discussion in a lay Johns Hopkins journal,” Dornbush said in an understatement.

Another result was that he, his son and his brother began raising money to help pursue a commercial footing for the new treatment. Dornbush said his son, Kirk Dornbush, a finance officer, raised $4.7 million, a good portion of it from Dornbush and his brother.

“After I had cancer … the second time … my life changed,” Dornbush said. The first time he dealt with the disease, he said, “my primary consideration was serving my country ” that’s what you do.”

But now, he said, his mission is “to fight cancer in any way that I could.”

The Aspen Cancer Conference is described in its literature as a gathering of “the world’s top researchers [who], using their collective brainpower … have chipped away, piece by piece, at the mysteries of cancer.” It will continue through Thursday.

John Colson’s e-mail address is

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