Archive for September, 2015


Sep 28 2015

A Visit to Vermont

by at 8:37 am

Greetings from the North Country! I am in Burlington, Vermont right now, preparing for a meeting of the Lake Champlain Cancer Research Organization as it reviews the progress of the University of Vermont in recapturing its designation as a NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center. I did my internal medicine training and Chief Medical Residency at the University of Vermont (known as UVM), and at the time it was a NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center led by Irving Krakoff and Jerome Yates. While it was never a large cancer center, UVM had an active Phase I program and a robust research enterprise. Krakoff and Yates were instrumental in my decision to pursue a Hematology/Oncology fellowship, and gave me valuable advice in choosing a fellowship program. I have been grateful to them for their generosity of spirit for many years.

Speaking of many years, the UVM cancer center gradually faded due a combination of a changing external environment and dwindling institutional support from a struggling university in a relatively poor state. Eventually, the cancer center lost its NCI designation. This is a terrible shame, because northern New England and upstate New York encompass a vast territory, have challenges unique to this catchment area, and the people living there deserve the very best that research-inspired cancer medicine has to offer.

Gary Stein has taken on the challenge of invigorating efforts to recapture NCI designation, and Jerry Yates, a distinguished population scientist, now chairs the LCCRO board, which oversees the deployment of the endowment used to support cancer research at UVM and its affiliates. I was honored when Jerry asked me to assist in this effort given my experience as a cancer center director who knows a little about UVM (though it has been a long time!), as it provides me with an opportunity to “give back” to a place that helped me find my career path.

In truth, the responsibility is not especially time-consuming – one to two meetings per year, only one of which has to be “in person”. Hence, my presence in Burlington for a meeting on Monday. Now, even though it a long way from home, a trip to Burlington at the end of September is not exactly punishment. Few places are more beautiful, even though the fall colors were not yet in play. I brought Harriet up so we could prowl around for the weekend, and was delighted by how much Burlington has matured over the decades; it is a genuinely wonderful town with an exciting vibe, very nice restaurants and a lively arts scene. And, the opportunities abound for outdoor sports, on Lake Champlain or in the Green Mountains. We loved the Waterfront Park, which features stunning views of the lake and has a fabulous bike/walking path that was developed by my old medical trainee (I was his supervising resident), Howard Dean, prior to his elections to statewide offices in Vermont.

We also took a lovely drive up towards the Canadian border and through Smugglers Notch, looking for (but not finding) any changing leaves. However, just north of Enosburg Falls we stumbled into an astonishing outdoor sculpture exhibition called Cold Hollow Sculpture Park, featuring monumental modern pieces created by David Stromeyer. It is well worth a side trip should you ever find yourself in Burlington.

I return on Monday, when the meeting ends, and look forward to participating in the President’s Retreat on Tuesday. It will be a busy week, but I will return after a most refreshing weekend!

Have a great week.

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Sep 21 2015

The Ultimate Legacy

by at 8:52 am

I am writing on Sunday night, fuming over the incompetence of the Eagles, who could not get out of their own way in their appalling loss to the Cowboys. No doubt many of you are pleased by the excellent game played by the Redskins. With Tony Romo’s injury and the incompetence of the Eagles and Giants, I guess the NFC East is officially up for grabs!

I am in the midst of a truncated couple of work weeks, since I have been and will be out to observe the Jewish Holidays of Rosh Hashanah (celebrating the Jewish New Year – 5776) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement – starting on Tuesday evening). On top of that I spent part of last week at an AACR Immunology Conference in New York. It is such an exciting time for the field, and the science underlying the advances is fascinating and important. I spent some of that time fashioning a first draft of a project to which I’ll contribute for Bob Clarke’s renewal of the U54 Center of Cancer Systems Biology. I’ll be focusing on the intersection of adaptive immunity and resistance to anti-estrogen therapies. It is a surprisingly understudied area, and we have a lot to contribute to the field.

But, the most memorable experience of the week for me was the memorial service I attended on Sunday morning at a packed Gaston Hall for the late Rabbi Harold White, who passed away recently after a short illness. Rabbi White was the first Jewish chaplain appointed at Georgetown University in 1968. When he was first approached to consider the post, he wondered why he was needed, since Georgetown then had few if any Jewish students. The President of Georgetown replied that he didn’t want someone to minister to the Jewish students, he wanted someone who would be there to broaden the views and experiences of the rest of the University Community. What a vision! And, that’s exactly what happened. In his time here, Rabbi White was a pioneer and an icon who fostered inter-religious understanding and served as a spiritual beacon for the entire Georgetown community. His High Holy Day services at Gaston Hall were legendary, and he helped to make Georgetown the remarkable university that it has come to be over the past half-century. Of the many remarkable reminiscences I heard, perhaps the most moving came from his colleague and dear friend, Iman Yahya Hendi, the first Muslim chaplain at Georgetown. Before chanting a Muslim prayer for the dead, while wiping away his own tears, the Iman related how he, Rabbi White and Reverend Dennis McManus blessed each other in the Jordan River, creating an example of inter-religious respect and love that galvanized all around them. Rabbi White leaves behind a legacy of warmth, inclusiveness and an important role in helping Georgetown to transform itself into a proud Catholic University that could celebrate its Jewish chaplain’s legacy in a manner that was filled with love, respect and appreciation. As Father McManus mentioned, it could not have happened 50 years ago, could not have been imagined 100 years ago and would have been punishable by imprisonment (at least!) 500 years ago. We’ve come a long way, and Rabbi Harold White propelled that process. He made the world a better place. And isn’t that what we all should aim to do?

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Sep 11 2015

Opportunities Abound

by at 1:03 pm

There were some notable events in this short post-holiday week. On Tuesday afternoon we had a really good Special Sector Faculty Meeting in the beautiful new Research Building Auditorium. We discussed recent encouraging developments with Hackensack University Medical Center and heard quite a bit about the Caris initiative, being led by John Marshall. This represents Lombardi’s major current patient interface effort in the field of precision medicine, and we now have the ability to offer our patients molecular profiling, with the support of a molecular tumor board and in the context of a national cooperative effort that Lombardi is leading. This effort is generating an absolute treasure trove of information that should be of enormous interest to any scientist interested in many aspects of the population sciences, and anybody interested in molecular targets and genomics. So, this is a great opportunity for all members of our scientific community to hop aboard and connect their research to the world of cancer therapy.

My past week also was highlighted by my attendance on Tuesday morning at the annual Advisory Board meeting for the Innovation Center of Biomedical Informatics along with several other colleagues from Lombardi. Subha Madhavan and the entire team have been a great asset to the Cancer Center since ICBI was established three years ago, and I was delighted to see the many ways in which they are advancing the cause of personalized healthcare. Their partnerships with institutions like MedStar, COTA, and Caris have increased the number of datasets available for Lombardi analysis, and they continue to provide education and training to inspire the next generation of biomedical informatics scientists. They also offer valuable research support services to Georgetown staff – learn more here – that span from biomolecular analysis and data integration to training on bioinformatics tools such as G-DOC. This is a great resource that you may want to consider collaborating with for your cancer research projects.

I also encourage everyone to register now for their upcoming Biomedical Informatics Symposium, which is taking place on October 16th at the Georgetown University Conference Center. The event is free for academic members, and will gather leaders in clinical and translational sciences to discuss advances in areas of molecular medicine, health data analytics, and related state-of-the-art technologies to advance precision medicine. It offers clinicians, educators, and students the opportunity to network and exchange ideas, as well as present their projects at the poster session. The deadline for abstract submissions is September 25th – you can find more information here.

Have a great week.

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Sep 08 2015

Working Toward a Better World

by at 9:31 am

The summer has functionally ended for us, and I am looking forward to a busy and productive next few months. Our autumn kicks off today with a Special Sector Faculty meeting where Ed Healton, our EVP, will offer remarks and take questions about the Medical Center. He really wants to hear from us, and it should be a very productive meeting. Before then I will be at the ICBI strategic planning meeting, helping Subha Madhavan and her colleagues lay down tracks for the future of this exciting initiative.

As I read the newspapers over the weekend, I was struck by the apparent wave of senseless violence that has been gripping this city in 2015, with nearly 110 murders since January. When I think about how hard we all work to prevent even one death from cancer, I wonder how our society can be numb to these terrible events. And then, when I think about the senseless wars around the world, and refugee crises that create unspeakable human tragedies, exemplified by the body of a toddler washing up on a beach in Europe, I wonder how we, as a species, can tolerate this madness.

Some observers with a keener sense of history than me will surely note that, from a statistical perspective, this has been the most peaceful era in recorded human history. That may be true, but in an era when every event is captured on video, and events half way around the world have an immediacy unimaginable to previous generations, is our ability to witness the dark side of history not a call for meaningful change?

Unfortunately, change of this type is very, very hard. I became a physician because I wanted to make the world a better place through my actions, and felt I could best accomplish that one patient at a time. During the course of my career I have learned that my efforts could be amplified through research and leadership activities to improve the state of cancer care. And I have learned that it is very hard to do what one knows how to do (in my case, cancer research and care), let alone that which is unfamiliar (e.g., putting an end to violence). So, while I will continue to plug away at the former, I will stew about the latter, hoping that we don’t come up with an answer for one problem, only to find that the other one has turned out to be the more pressing and important challenge. Because I am fundamentally optimistic, I believe that the larger tides of history are pushing us towards a time when efforts to prolong human life by controlling disease are going to make the world a better place – and that we will find a way to curb senseless violence and the societal evils that create fertile ground for such actions.

OK, I am done ranting. Have a great week.

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