This past year has represented a time of transition for our cancer center. The entities that were formerly known as the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (encompassing our research efforts) and UPMC CancerCenter (encompassing our extensive network of clinical care sites) have been renamed as the unified UPMC Hillman Cancer Center to recognize the influential vision and instrumental contributions of the late Elsie and Henry Hillman. As they conceived, designed, and helped build our flagship Hillman Cancer Center to incorporate both research laboratories and patient care facilities within a joint space, our new name underscores the collaborative and highly integrated nature of our work and mission: to quickly advance the latest scientific discoveries into promising new therapies for our patients.
We have also undergone a transition of leadership, and I am deeply honored to serve as the third Director of UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. As both a basic research immunologist and surgeon, treating head and neck cancer patients since I first joined this cancer center in 2002 and became involved in its leadership in 2007, I have witnessed the scientific breakthroughs and administrative changes that have taken place over the years. It has informed my vision of where I think we already excel, and what I think we can attain in just a few short years to come.
Moving forward, there are several high priority research initiatives, on which we will be especially focused, to enhance and strengthen local, national, and global capabilities for providing world-class cancer care. These are:
- Promoting scientific innovation and swift advancement of discoveries into novel medical products and informative clinical trials. The goal is to further increase the level of collaboration among laboratory and clinical investigators, in order to provide patients with more effective and less toxic treatment options. We will particularly focus on the area of immunotherapy, which has already been found to be of tremendous benefit to subgroups of cancer patients.
- Extending availability of clinical trials to community sites throughout the vast Hillman network. The goal is to provide patients in all 29 counties of western Pennsylvania with more convenient access to the new cutting-edge therapies that are only available through clinical trial participation.
- Enhancing precision oncology efforts. The goal is to ensure that all cancer patients receive the right cancer treatment at the right time. Collection and analysis of comprehensive “omics” data sets from large numbers of patients are now allowing us to identify common (and less common) “signatures” that predict how an individual patient will respond to a given therapy, or combinations of therapies. Once these signatures are identified, it becomes necessary to develop a means for rapidly and inexpensively detecting which patients have tumors that display these signatures.
- Expanding cancer prevention efforts. The goal is to reduce the incidence of cancer in both the general and high-risk populations. This entails supporting research aimed at discovering and developing new chemo- and immuno-prevention agents, increasing the effectiveness of outreach and education services to modify risk behaviors, and increasing uptake rates of the already-proven prevention strategies of colonoscopy and HPV vaccination in our community.
In order to enact these initiatives and accomplish these goals, it is necessary that we continue to attract and recruit top scientists and physicians to Hillman. In this regard, it is my pleasure to welcome four new faculty members to our Hillman community.
Ronald Buckanovich, MD, PhD was recently recruited from the University of Michigan and is now Co-Leader of the Hillman Breast and Ovarian Cancer Program. Dr. Buckanovich is a Professor of Medicine and of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Science, and is Co-Director of the UPMC Ovarian Cancer Center of Excellence. As a clinician-scientist, his research initiatives encompass both the conduct of clinical trials examining novel agents and combinations for the treatment of ovarian and peritoneal cancers, as well as laboratory-based studies focused on the characterization and therapeutic targeting of ovarian cancer stem cells.
Lan Coffman, MD, also from Michigan, recently joined as an Assistant Professor of Medicine and of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Science, member of the Hillman Breast and Ovarian Cancer Program, and a staff physician in the Division of Hematology-Oncology. She studies key signaling pathways involved in the development and progression of ovarian cancer, specifically focusing on the role of cells within the ovarian cancer microenvironment.
We were also fortunate to recruit Udai Kammula, MD and Abhishek Srivastava, PhD from the National Cancer Institute, to become new members of the Hillman Cancer Immunology Program.
Dr. Kammula is an Associate Professor and Director of the Tumor Cell Therapy Program in the Department of Surgery. He is a surgical oncologist and immunologist engaged in basic, translational, and clinical research aimed at the development and application of innovative cancer immunotherapies, including adoptive T cell transfer.
Dr. Srivastava is an Assistant Professor of Surgery who also brings expertise to our immunology team in the area of cancer immunotherapy.
As we move into the fall, I look forward to the many upcoming research seminars scheduled across the Hillman and University campuses. These opportunities often spark the discourse among members of our research community that lead to productive collaborations, which may enable the next great scientific discovery.
Robert L. Ferris, MD, PhD