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Nov. 15, 2011

Forming a global cancer network for research, clinical care, education and prevention.

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MD Anderson’s Moonshots

A change of administration brings a great deal of excitement to an institution, and also some of the anxiety inevitably associated with change. MD Anderson has been awaiting our new president, Ronald DePinho, M.D.’s vision for our future and we had our first chance this week when he presented it at a townhall meeting.
After asking an MD Anderson Gyn Onc physician once, “What is cancer trying to do,” she paused and simple stated, “That’s a good question.” And that is exactly the question DePinho wants the institution to focus on and answer. MD Anderson treats cancer as effectively as anyone, and because of its strong clinical engagement, extensive translational research capabilities and sound business model, is well positioned to capitalize on recent scientific advances in order to make a profound impact on cancer. DePinho’s stated objective for MD Anderson is no small feat; to cure several major cancers. He framed it as a moonshot, and as our responsibility.

Research is, of course, the key to solving a medical or scientific problem. A great deal of research, however, is pursued in isolation from complimentary efforts that may feed on or improve the result, which is particularly detrimental when tackling problems requiring large teams of different specialists. In an institution the size of MD Anderson, for example, there are thousands of people pursuing our common goal or eradicating cancer, but from the vantages of individual disciplines. DePinho envisions the institution further integrating research into a multidisciplinary model much like that employed in the clinical setting. Changing the research paradigm, however, requires changing the way researchers ask questions.

Instead of focusing on what a particular lab needs to do in order to take the next step in its current research, or increase its publication numbers, or impact factor of those publications, DePinho want everyone to ask, “What do I need to know in order to cure this cancer?” It does not sound unreasonable. Most people outside of research probably think that is the question already being asked. But modern academia, with its imperative to pursue near-term goals of funding and publications sometimes make it hard to focus on the larger picture.

Anyone who asks a question as comprehensive as the one posed by our president,realizes they need information from a variety of sources before they can work on their particular piece of the puzzle. This would create an innate need to work with, and understand the work of, other scientific and research disciplines. In addition to MD Anderson being a place where a surgeon, medical oncologist and radiation oncologist sit around a table and ask “How do we treat this patient?,” it would become a place where a virologist, biochemist, immunologist, geneticist, epidemiologist, chemist, pharmacologist and bioinformatician could sit around a similar table and ask, “What information are we lacking to fix this and how do we get it.”  That would then drive their individual and cumulative pursuits.

As with any grand ambition, there are a multitude of details and concerns to address, including how to blend the needs of the individual to succeed in an academic model and the need to build large cooperating teams. But the president has inspired MD Anderson to take a fresh look at the cancer problem and consider incorporating certain industry practices such as defined milestones and deliverables. The new perspective will also require a willingness to set aside projects, which may lead to interesting research but not to clinical breakthroughs. Needless to say, the coming months and years will be interesting and challenging here at MD Anderson. But as we pursue this aim to cure several major cancers, it can only also energize the GAP network. GAP looks forward to including you in the work and progress as we cooperatively learn about and lessen cancer’s impact across the globe.

Calendar of Events

9th International Conference on Ovarian Cancer
MD Anderson
Dec. 2-3, 2011

Recent Developments in Cancer Prevention
Udaipur, India
Dec. 16-19, 20111

Excellence in Oncology
Istanbul, Turkey
Feb. 23-25, 2012


GAP’s Newest Initiative – Outreach for Cervical Cancer

Global Academic Programs has begun working on the first phase of an outreach effort in cervical cancer screening and treatment using VIA/Cryo paired with training of local health care professionals. VIA/Cryo, or visualization of the cervix with acetic acid and Cryotherapy, has become the standard of care in many low resource settings. The acetic acid, or vinegar, causes cancerous or pre-cancerous lesions to show up as white spots on the cervix. Those spots can then be frozen off with a metal probe cooled by a tank of carbon dioxide.

The initial GAP-Cervical Cancer Outreach trip will aim to screen approximately 1000 women and train 25 health care providers in Guatemala. The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center team will be led by Kathleen Schmeler, M.D., assistant professor in the Department of Gyn Onc & Reproductive Medicine. Schmeler has previously participated in similar outreach and training events, but this will be the first time MD Anderson has sponsored an outreach screening, treatment and training event through GAP.

The new program ultimately plans to incorporate research partnerships aimed at developing rapid HPV DNA tests, improved cervical imaging technologies and appropriate delivery of service models. This would enable only the women who tested positive for the HPV virus to visit a clinic and receive additional care. In addition, the program is working on incorporating HPV vaccination delivery during its clinic visits as well as creating a Gyn Onc fellowship within GAP’s Sister Institution Network.

Laying the Groundwork for the Turkish Oncology Consortium

MD Anderson Radiation Treatment Center in Istanbul at American Hospital opened its doors in January 2010 and has been successfully treating a growing number of patients ever since. Operated by the Vehbi Koc Foundation, American Hospital is a private, comprehensive care provider. Recently, the foundation opened the Koc University School of Medicine and will soon open the Teaching and Research Hospital of Koc University to support the medical school and provide research efforts for the medical school and teaching hospital as well as American Hospital.

Up the road from Istanbul, in the capital Ankara, MD Anderson in Houston has developed strong research ties with Hacettepe (the c sounds like a j – Hajeteppe) University. Hacettepe has also trained many of the physicians at Koc University, including the University’s dean of the medical school. Because of MD Anderson’s strong ties with both Hacettepe and Koc University, GAP is working towards forming the Turkish Oncology Consortium, comprised of both Universities, as a future Sister Institution.

Earlier in the year, GAP staff and leadership visited both places and in the first quarter of 2012 GAP will meet with MD Anderson faculty to formally propose this relationship. Currently, Gabriel Lopez, M.D., professor and Bulent Ozpolat, M.D., assistant professor, both in the Department of Experimental Therapeutics, work on collaborative research with Hacettepe University. Deborah Kuban, M.D., professor in the Department of Radiation Oncology, serves on the Consortium’s MD Anderson committee and has been integral to the development of the MD Anderson Radiation Treatment Center at American University.

Network News

Fudan University Shanghai Cancer Center Turns 80

Established in 1931, FUSCC is the first hospital specializing in cancer in China and now serves as a comprehensive cancer center under the direction of the Chinese Minister of Health. It remains the only comprehensive cancer center in Shanghai and employs multidisciplinary care much like MD Anderson. FUSCC became a Sister Institution in 2003 and since then at least 25 peer-reviewed papers have been published and the United States’ National Cancer Institute (NCI) has awarded several joint grants to MD Anderson and FUSCC. In addition to partnering with MD Anderson, FUSCC is also affiliated with Institut Gustave Roussy, another MD Anderson Sister Institution. Thomas Feeley, M.D., division head of the Department of Anesthesiology & Critical Care represented MD Anderson at the anniversary celebration in Shanghai on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011 and Ronald DePinho, M.D., president of MD Anderson wrote a personal letter to current FUSCC president, Xiaomao Guo, M.D., a radiation oncologist who spent a month at MD Anderson on sabbatical, congratulating him on the institution’s achievements.

First Published Article to Acknowledge SINF Support

This month's Nature - Letter is the first publication to acknowledge support from GAP's Sister Institution Network Fund. The paper, "Nuclear PKM2 Regulates β-Catenin Transactivation upon EGFR Activation,"  details an improved understanding in how PKM2, an isoenzyme, which is similar to an amino acid, is integral to tumorigenesis. Zhimin Lu, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Neuro-Oncology - Research received SINF funding with his partner at Peking Union Medical College, He Jie, M.D. for a project titled, "The Role of β-Catenin Regulation by PKM2 in Tumor Development."