A Fireside Chat with The James CEO Dr. Michael Caligiuri
The director of The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center and CEO of the James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute has a way of making complicated cancer research easy to understand and, in a calm, but passionate voice, he provides optimism and hope for the future.
During his chat on Thursday at the Fawcett Center, Dr. Caligiuri talked about the “exceptional” rating and perfect score the OSUCCC – James recently received from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), advances in immunology and how the Oncology Research Information Exchange Network (ORIEN) could play a role in the White House cancer “moonshot” program President Obama announced in his last State of the Union Address.
Every five years the NCI reviews Ohio State’s Comprehensive Cancer center. In our most recent review in 2015, the OSUCCC – James received the highest merit descriptor of “Exceptional” and a perfect numerical score of 10. At this writing there are 45 NCI-designated comprehensive cancer centers in the United States.
“To my knowledge, we’re the first university-based comprehensive cancer center to get a perfect score,” Dr. Caligiuri said, adding Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York has received a perfect score, but is a free-standing cancer hospital not affiliated with a university.
The money people donate to the OSUCCC – James for cancer research “should be an investment and there should be a return on that investment,” Dr. Caligiuri said. The exceptional rating and perfect score “is your return,” he said.
Dr. Caligiuri highlights promising new cancer treatments in his chat. This year’s hot topic: Immunotherapy.
Immunotherapy harnesses the power of the body’s immune system to attack and kill cancer cells.
In most cases, the body can tell the difference between normal cells and “foreign” cells. But cancer is tricky and can create mutations – or “checkpoints” – that fool the body into thinking these rapidly dividing and growing cells are normal.
“There are DNA changes that hide (the cancer) from the immune system,” Dr. Caligiuri said, comparing it to the way in which high-tech aircraft avoid radar detection.
Scientists are creating checkpoint inhibitors that wake up the immune system, and alert it to attack these previously shielded cancer cells to “shut it down like it shuts down the common cold,” Dr. Caligiuri said. “I have seen (immunotherapy) patients who failed chemotherapy and radiation and were in the final stages go into remission.”
Immunotherapy, in combination with surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and other drugs “adds a new weapon,” Dr. Caligiuri said.
Checkpoint inhibitors are being developed to fight a wide range of cancers.
Earlier in the day, before his chat on campus, Dr. Caligiuri traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with members of Vice President Joe Biden’s staff and brief them on ORIEN, a data-gathering platform. Biden leads the White House Cancer Moonshot Task Force.
ORIEN was launched in May 2014 by the OSUCCC – James and the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Fla., and it is designed to ease the sharing of information between participating hospitals and researchers, ultimately making cures easier to develop and discover. Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post for more information on the meeting in DC and a deeper look at ORIEN.
“Everything big happens through the federal government,” said Dr. Caligiuri, who is optimistic the Moonshot Task Force will spur unprecedented funding for cancer research.
However, “complacency won’t get it done,” he said, and urged the people who attended the chat to let their elected officials know how important cancer research is to them, and vote for candidates who support increased funding for research.
“We put a pittance into cancer research compared to what it costs us,” Dr. Caligiuri said.
On the topic of potential next big breakthroughs in research, they mentioned Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) T-Cell therapy and the use of fluorescent dye in cancer surgery.
In CAT T-Cell therapy, a patient’s T cells are collected and reengineered in the laboratory to create the chimeric antigen receptors on their surface. These cells are then put back in the patient’s body and now recognize and kill cancer cells. It’s the next step in immunotherapy.
Caligiuri hinted that CAT T-Cell therapy might be the hot topic of his 2017 Fireside Chat.
On another note, newly developed fluorescent dyes light up cancer cells. The fluorescence allows surgeons “to be sure they remove all the cancerous cells,” Dr. Teknos explained. “It’s visual documentation the tumor is gone.”
Another question centered on how Caligiuri recruits and retains the top talent. His biggest tool, Dr. Caligiuri said, is creating an environment in which world-class researchers can “engage their passion.”
Dr. Teknos agreed.
“A huge part of why so much talent comes to Ohio State is this man,” Dr. Teknos said of Dr. Caligiuri. “His leadership sets the culture and culture is so important. We have a culture that’s collaborative and we have the opportunity to follow our passion.”