January 18, 2008

Pietenpol named Cancer Center director

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Jennifer Pietenpol, Ph.D.

Pietenpol named Cancer Center director

Jennifer Pietenpol, Ph.D., has been selected to lead Tennessee's only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehen-sive Cancer Center.

Her appointment as director of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center is effective immediately.

Pietenpol became interim director last February, when Ray DuBois, M.D., Ph.D., stepped down to become provost/executive vice president at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She quickly emerged as a strong and respected leader with the right mix of skills for the role, said Harry Jacobson, M.D., vice chancellor for Health Affairs.

“I am thrilled Jennifer has accepted this position,” Jacobson said. “I committed to finding the best person to lead this center and to ensure its place among the nation's finest. I believe we've found that person in Jennifer. During a national search, we considered a number of very capable and strong individuals. Meanwhile, Jennifer emerged as a true star, and has demonstrated energetic and inspirational leadership. It is clear she is uniquely qualified to lead this stellar team of physicians, scientists and staff to even greater heights.”

The Comprehensive Cancer Centers form the foundation of cancer research and advancing cancer treatment in the United States. There are 39 such centers, judged through rigorous evaluation to be national leaders in research, treatment, education and outreach. There are only six in the Southeast.

“I am honored to take on this role,” Pietenpol said. “We have tremendous depth of talent and dedication among our faculty and staff. It is a privilege to have the opportunity to bring together the strengths of so many people for what I would argue is one of the most important goals — to make a difference in the lives of cancer patients. I'm willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that everyone on the team has what they need to continue their outstanding work.

“I have to thank the center's senior leaders for their hard work and support. I also want to thank Dr. Jacobson and his leadership team for their recognition of the important role that this center plays, both in Vanderbilt's success and in the success of the fight against cancer. Their support is absolutely critical.”

When she accepted the interim role, Pietenpol committed to sustain and build on Vanderbilt-Ingram's momentum, and over the past year, the Cancer Center has logged a number of key accomplishments. These include edging up to seventh place in competitive funding from the NCI and becoming a member of the prestigious National Comprehensive Cancer Network.

Whether in conversation or in formal presentations, Pietenpol speaks clearly about the center's overarching purpose — to eliminate death and suffering from cancer, for individual patients by delivering first-rate, evidence-based care and on a global scale through its innovative science and translational research.

“The cancer field has made great progress,” she said. “The decline in cancer deaths across the country continues. That's good news, but we still have a lot to do. Tennessee is one of seven contiguous states with the highest cancer death rates. We are one of only two Comprehensive Cancer Centers in these states, and as such, it is our obligation to focus our work where we can make the most impact.

“Until those outcomes change significantly, our jobs are not done.”

A member of the Vanderbilt faculty since 1994, Pietenpol has served as the center's associate director for basic science and translational research programs since 2002. She is a past program leader for Signal Transduction and Cell Proliferation, one of seven research programs in the center. She credits any success in these roles to a mentorship committee of “three wise men,” Hal Moses, M.D., David Johnson, M.D., and Larry Marnett, Ph.D. She also credits Michael Waterman, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Biochemistry.

“Jennifer is an exceptional scientist and great leader,” said Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., associate vice chancellor for research. “I have enjoyed working with her during this transition and look forward to supporting her vision and momentum to keep Vanderbilt-Ingram at the forefront of cancer centers in this country.”

Over the past year, Pietenpol has overseen progress in an expansion that will double the capacity of the cancer outpatient clinic and chemotherapy infusion center, and she has worked closely with other leaders in the ongoing development of a new strategic vision for cancer care.

“While Dr. Pietenpol's own training is in basic science, she has a remarkable understanding and appreciation for the clinical arena, particularly the all-critical relationship between great patient care and first-rate research discovery,” said Wright Pinson, M.D., associate vice chancellor for Clinical Affairs and chief medical officer.

“She has demonstrated exceptional administrative talent and team building during the interim period. This appointment will only enhance the strong collaboration that makes Vanderbilt-Ingram one of the finest cancer centers in the world.”

VUSM Dean Steven Gabbe, M.D., agreed.

“Jennifer was one of the first scientists recruited to the Cancer Center, and she has played an important role in developing our basic and translational research efforts,” Gabbe said. “I am delighted she has accepted this position. She has done a marvelous job and I have every confidence that the progress in the Cancer Center will only accelerate.”

Pietenpol's skill in building relationships and communicating with donors and volunteers was also noted by observers, including Orrin Ingram, chair of the center's Board of Overseers.

“I've been impressed by her natural talent as a communicator and by her determination to identify and accomplish what's needed,” Ingram said. “I'm very excited about the future under her direction.”

Pietenpol received her doctoral degree in cell biology from Vanderbilt in 1990, and then joined the laboratory of Bert Vogelstein, M.D., at Johns Hopkins Oncology Center (now the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins). In 1994, Pietenpol returned to Vanderbilt to join the faculty and soon after received a Burroughs Wellcome Fund Award for her research in the areas of cancer biology and toxicology.

Her own research focuses on tumor suppressor and cell cycle checkpoint signaling pathways in normal cells and how these pathways malfunction in tumor cells. The ultimate aim of her work is to define molecular changes that occur frequently in tumor cells and to use these alterations as targets for treatment. Currently, Pietenpol's laboratory is funded by the NCI, the Department of Defense and the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

Pietenpol is Ingram Professor of Cancer Research and professor of Biochemistry.