After 15 Years, Mendelsohn to Change Role

John Mendelsohn, M.D., who has served as president of The University of Texas 
MD Anderson Cancer Center through an incredibly productive period of nearly 15 years, today announced plans to relinquish his leadership position when a new president is recruited and in place.

The announcement was made shortly after Mendelsohn met in Austin to discuss his wishes with UT System Chancellor Francisco G. Cigarroa, M.D., and Executive Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs Kenneth I. Shine, M.D.

“I’ve had the best job imaginable, working with amazing faculty, administrators and all employees, along with our many volunteers and supporters in the community. I am grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to serve as their leader at MD Anderson, which is now well recognized as first in the nation in translational and clinical research and the nation’s number one hospital caring for cancer patients,” Mendelsohn said. “So much has been accomplished, but much more remains to be done. I am confident MD Anderson will continue to lead that worldwide effort.”

Mendelsohn will remain on the MD Anderson faculty, returning to clinical and translational research as co-director of its new Institute for Personalized Cancer Therapy (IPCT). Gordon Mills, M.D., Ph.D., who also chairs MD Anderson’s Department of Systems Biology, will co-direct the institute.

The IPCT is designed to carry out research which will revolutionize the way cancer treatment is delivered. It brings together laboratory researchers, clinicians and investigators from many disciplines to test cancer therapies that target the abnormal genes and gene products detected in each individual patient’s cancer. 

“Helping to launch the IPCT builds on my career experiences in developing the field of targeted cancer treatment,” said Mendelsohn. “This position will allow me to continue to work at MD Anderson with people I admire, doing things for which I have great passion.”

“John Mendelsohn is the epitome of a visionary leader. Not only did he lead The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center to be the nation’s — and arguably the world’s — greatest cancer center, he also brought out the best in the entire MD Anderson community. That is why patients, their families and all those whose paths cross MD Anderson will always be grateful to John Mendelsohn. He is an inspiration to The University of Texas System, and we are fortunate that he will continue to make cancer history,” said Chancellor Cigarroa.

Prior to coming to MD Anderson, Mendelsohn was founding director of the National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center at the University of California, San Diego, and then chaired the Department of Medicine and co-chaired the Program in Pharmacology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

When Mendelsohn joined MD Anderson in 1996, he had an international reputation for his research on how the binding of growth factors to receptors on the surface of cells regulates cell functions. 

He and his collaborators in California produced monoclonal antibody 225, which inhibits human cancer cell proliferation by blocking the signaling pathways that are activated by the receptors for epidermal growth factor. His subsequent research in the laboratory and the clinic pioneered the universally adopted concept of anti-receptor therapy that targets key cell signaling pathways as a new form of cancer treatment. Antibody 225 (commercially known as Cetuximab, or Erbitux) against the receptor for epidermal growth factor was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for treatment of colon cancer in 2004 and for head and neck cancer in 2006.

Upon arrival at MD Anderson, Mendelsohn’s focus quickly shifted from laboratory research and clinical trials to the intricacies of leading an institution that now employs nearly 18,000 people and serves 100,000 patients yearly, with a budget this year of more than $3.2 billion. 

These numbers hardly describe what has developed at MD Anderson under Mendelsohn’s leadership. By virtually any measure, the institution has more than doubled in size, while aiming for even higher excellence in patient care and research. During his tenure MD Anderson has, for example:

  • Promoted growth, excellence and collaboration in research by organizing five new Institutes, each of which collects together academic departments and centers of excellence that share research objectives.
  • Expanded clinical care activities by opening the Lowry and Peggy Mays Clinic, a 320-bed addition above the Alkek Hospital, the Faculty Center and the T. Boone Pickens Academic Tower for clinical offices, a Proton Therapy Center, and a 126-room expansion to the Rotary House International Hotel.
  • Opened the George and Cynthia Mitchell Basic Sciences Research Building, housing nearly 70 laboratories studying molecular genetics, epidemiology, biochemistry, molecular biology and brain cancer research. This facility is the primary location for the Institute for Basic Science.
  • Developed the Red and Charline McCombs Institute for the Early Detection and Treatment of Cancer on its South Campus, to explore new approaches for translating scientific discoveries into improved treatment of cancer.  The Institute has five new facilities and seven centers of excellence.
  • Created the Duncan Family Institute for Cancer Prevention and Risk Assessment in the new Dan L. Duncan Building, to find ways to predict and reduce cancer risk at the genetic, population and behavioral levels. This Institute also is exploring health disparities and ways of improving health care delivery.
  • Greatly expanded the nation’s largest program of clinical trials with experimental cancer therapies, with 10,000 patients participating annually. The new Institute for Personalized Cancer Therapy will sharpen the focus on investigating drugs and biological agents designed to counteract the genetic and molecular abnormalities in each patient’s cancer.
  • Expanded degree-granting programs, awarding bachelor’s degrees and certificates in eight allied health disciplines and jointly awarding a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences with The University of Texas Health Science Center. 
  • Earned more competitive research grants and grant dollars from the NCI than any other U.S. cancer center or university.
  • Increased private philanthropy to an average of \•00 million annually, and successfully concluded a \ billion capital campaign, under the leadership of its 250-member Board of Visitors.
  • Increased the cancer center’s operating and research budgets by greater than four-fold, and the number of faculty and employees by two-fold.
  • Built a worldwide collaborative network of more than 20 sister institutions, and opened clinical programs bearing the MD Anderson name in the Greater Houston area and in locations as far flung as Orlando, Madrid, Istanbul, Albuquerque and soon in Phoenix.

During this period of growth, MD Anderson defined and embraced its core values of caring for our patients and each other, integrity in all relationships and actions, and discovery in science and patient care.

“The regents who appointed John Mendelsohn as president of UT MD Anderson Cancer Center in 1996 can be particularly proud of their decision,” said Colleen McHugh, Chairman, UT System Board of Regents. “His outstanding advancement of the institution as well as his extraordinary impact on cancer research and patient care are felt all over the world. We are so pleased Dr. Mendelsohn will remain at MD Anderson in a scientific role of great passion to him, providing great comfort to cancer patients and their loved ones by bringing together world-class researchers and clinicians to target and treat a patient’s condition in a very personalized way.”

Mendelsohn served for 10 years as the founding editor-in-chief of the journal, Clinical Cancer Research, and on numerous editorial boards. He has been honored many times for his contributions to cancer research with major awards, including the Joseph H. Burchenal Clinical Research Award from the American Association for Cancer Research (1999), the David A. Karnofsky Memorial Award from the American Society of Clinical Oncology (2002), the Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal (2005), the Dan David Prize in Cancer Therapy (2006), and the Dorothy P. Landon – AACR Prize for Translational Research (2008).  He was elected to membership in the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.

Anne Mendelsohn, his wife of 48 years, a former scientist and public television producer and executive, played a significant role in expanding MD Anderson’s outreach into the community. She also has served as chair of the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences and the Houston board of Teach for America. They have three sons, two daughters-in-law, and eight grandchildren. Recently, the leaders of MD Anderson’s Board of Visitors announced an initiative to create a research fund in honor of Anne and John Mendelsohn.

Mendelsohn is only the third president of MD Anderson in a history that spans 70 years. R. Lee Clark, M.D. served as president from 1946-1978, and was followed by Charles A. LeMaistre, M.D., who was president from 1978-1996, when Mendelsohn arrived to take charge. Ernst W. Bertner, M.D. was initial acting director, from 1942 to 1946.

UT presidents are chosen by the UT System Board of Regents, and an advisory committee will be appointed by the Chairman of the Board to present candidates for consideration. A town hall meeting will be conducted by Executive Vice Chancellor Shine on the MD Anderson campus early in 2011 to explain the Regents’ search and selection process for President Mendelsohn’s successor.