February 23, 2007

VICC: VICC poised to help lead fight against cancer

Featured Image

At Vanderbilt-Ingram, the human touch is crucial. Here, David Johnson, M.D., chats with breast cancer survivor Janice Ingram. (photo by Francis Gardler)

VICC: VICC poised to help lead fight against cancer

Lynn Matrisian, Ph.D., right, and research assistant Barbara Fingleton in the lab. (photo by Dana Johnson)

Lynn Matrisian, Ph.D., right, and research assistant Barbara Fingleton in the lab. (photo by Dana Johnson)

Frances Williams Preston and Orrin Ingram. (photo by Dana Johnson)

Frances Williams Preston and Orrin Ingram. (photo by Dana Johnson)

A broad-based committee of senior faculty has been named to direct the search for the next director of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center.

The search comes at a pivotal point in the fight against cancer and in the growth and development of Vanderbilt-Ingram, which in only its second decade has established itself as one of the nation's premiere cancer research institutions and as the region's leader in consumer preference for cancer care.

The committee members represent basic, translational and clinical investigation, the three major cancer treatment modalities, and both adult and pediatric oncology.

They hold appointments in more than a dozen academic departments and include four members of the center's senior leadership, including its deputy director and interim director.

The committee — which will review outside candidates — is chaired by Daniel Beauchamp, M.D., and its members include Jennifer Pietenpol, Ph.D.; Carlos Arteaga, M.D.; Dennis Hallahan, M.D.; Heidi Hamm, Ph.D.; David Johnson, M.D.; Eric Neilson, M.D.; Joe Putnam Jr., M.D.; James Whitlock, M.D.; and Mary Zutter, M.D.

External and internal candidates will be considered, said Harry Jacobson, M.D., vice chancellor for Health Affairs.

“People across the country know Vanderbilt. They are excited about the work that's happening here. Because of the work of many individuals over the years, our Cancer Center enjoys a very strong reputation. I'm optimistic about this search because I believe this will be viewed as a very attractive position,” Jacobson said.

That reputation is built upon the quality and impact of the research at the heart of the Cancer Center's mission, said Pietenpol.

“The clinical and basic research has built our reputation, and while it is expensive, it's our most important investment,” she said. “We need to understand why people are at increased risk, to be the ones leading early detection and diagnosis, to use our research capabilities to offer the best treatments with the least side effects. That's the position of this cancer center, to understand the molecular basis well enough to detect cancer early and to offer the most streamlined, individualized, multidisciplinary care,” Pietenpol said.

Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., associate vice chancellor for Research, said the work of investigators is crucial to Vanderbilt-Ingram’s success.

“Just over a third of VUMC’s NIH funding is cancer-based. Such clinical and basic research is a cornerstone of our overall research portfolio. We are very supportive of the mission of the Cancer Center and proud of the work that these investigators are doing,” Balser said.

Challenges ahead

One of the biggest challenges ahead is securing financial support in the face of dwindling federal funding for research, she said. President Bush's proposed fiscal year 2008 budget would slice more than $500 million from the National Institutes of Health budget, including $11 million from the National Cancer Institute.

“We've remained remarkably competitive for large collaborative grants, even in these tight times,” Pietenpol said. “For example, on the last four major grants for which we've competed, we not only received 'outstanding scores' but the top scores in the nation.

“Yet, we have to be even more competitive for even tighter resources.”

Another significant challenge is to achieve the proper balance between scientific discovery and clinical care delivery, she said.

“How are we going to meet that growing demand for cancer care, both for new patients and long-term survivors? Some of our top doctors are also our top translational and clinical researchers. That's something we have to figure out together. Growth in our clinical program will open better opportunities for clinical and basic research.

“We have a commitment to provide excellent care to patients, regardless, but more patients also means more candidates for clinical trials, more tissue samples for research. All of that increases, as does the opportunity for the clinicians to provide feedback to fuel our discoveries in the lab. It's synergistic,” Pietenpol said.

Winning the war?

The American Cancer Society recently announced that deaths due to cancer had declined in the United States for the second year in a row. This prompted many to ask, are we truly turning the tide? Pietenpol answers with a strong, but conditional, yes.

“If you consider winning the war on cancer to be understanding the molecular basis of the disease, we've made, and are making, huge strides. From a patient's perspective, success is being diagnosed when you can be cured and when screening tools are available for early detection of recurrence or second cancers for years to come. That's where we want to also focus our resources.”

The progress in understanding cancer at the molecular level is due to what she calls “mind-boggling” advances in technology, informatics and the pace of scientific discovery in the past 20 years.

“Back then, it was one scientist, investigating one gene or pathway … or maybe pathways limited to just one or two proteins,” she recalled. “Now, it's not unusual to have a lab at the extreme of that — one scientist studying hundreds of proteins, thousands of genes, in collaboration with colleagues all over the world.”

Vanderbilt Ingram's own focus is on areas that will have the greatest impact on future generations, including:

• early detection and prevention;

• identification and validation of new molecular targets for therapy;

• development of “personalized” cancer treatment;

• design and initiation of high-impact clinical trials;

• and provision of the most innovative, compassionate care for patients, families and long-term cancer survivors.

“Our goal is not to be one of many centers or hospitals doing the same thing,” Pietenpol said. “It's to be at the cutting edge of research and clinical care and to set the example. I am very optimistic about our future.”