February 23, 2007

VICC: Pietenpol talks about new Cancer Center role

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Jennifer Pietenpol, Ph.D.

VICC: Pietenpol talks about new Cancer Center role

Jennifer Pietenpol, Ph.D., was recently selected to lead the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center as interim director while a national search is under way for a successor to Ray DuBois, M.D., Ph.D., who is leaving Vanderbilt later this year to become provost and executive vice president at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

Pietenpol recently discussed her new role with the Reporter's Cynthia Manley and Heather Newman.

What does the name “Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center” mean to you?

It's everything at Vanderbilt that's related to cancer. It's many things. It's the clinical enterprise, the investigators involved in treating patients with cancer. It's the clinical, basic, translational and population-based research aimed at cancer. It's the people who do the valet services for our patients. It's the people doing the most complicated surgical resection.

What's going well?

Our ability to work together as a team. We would never have competed successfully for the collaborative grants that we have without functioning well as a team. This is especially true in the face of declining NIH (National Institutes of Health) budgets. Look at, say, the SPORE grants — each of those include investigators in 10 or 12 different academic departments and divisions. We're only as good as the institution and the departments and divisions that make up the Cancer Center and the faculty in those department and divisions. They deserve the credit for the Cancer Center's success.

What's the biggest challenge ahead?

Availability of funds. Top-shelf research and quality care are very expensive. Our progress, to some extent, will be dictated by how much money is available. If we want to continue our momentum, we must be as competitive, if not more so, for the extramural funds that are available — federal dollars, foundation support and private donations.

Why did you take this role?

Because I thought I could make a difference, it's that simple. I know far too many people who have suffered from cancer. It's what's always propelled me. So when you're involved in cancer research, cancer treatment and cancer education, everything you do, you're doing for a reason. Yes, cancer deaths are declining but one in two men, and one in three women, will have cancer. What better motivator than that?

So it's the cancer patient who may benefit from your work, that's what gets you up in the morning?

You know, soon before I took this role, a childhood friend of mine died of renal cancer. She was diagnosed right after Labor Day and died the week after Thanksgiving — 90 days from diagnosis to death.

She was 40 and she died three days shy of her daughter's first birthday. So … it's personal, and the older I get, it seems to get more personal every day. We need to pick up the pace.