Experience, Expertise, Excitement: Meet Our Director, Raphael Pollock

Experience Expertise Excitement

Months after Raphael Pollock, MD, PhD moved into his new office, the room was still filled with boxes he hadn’t had time to unpack. Text messages and emails arrive at a fast and furious pace, and by the time he finishes one meeting, he’s a few minutes late for the next.

Nevertheless, the calm, kind, confident and humble Pollock is thriving as the director of The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center (OSUCCC).

“This is what revs my engine,” Pollock says. “I’m excited.”

He was named interim director of the OSUCCC in November, then given the permanent title a short time later.

Pollock has been treating cancer patients for 35 years as a surgeon specializing in soft tissue sarcomas, while also breaking new ground as a research scientist, serving as the primary investigator for one of the first large-scale research collaborations between multiple cancer centers funded by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). His career has been full of twists and turns, inspirational mentors and what he calls, “dramatic patient interactions.”

“Over the years, I’ve had my fair share of successes and all too many failures,” he says, describing the career of every successful oncology surgeon. “It’s ultimately all about caring for patients. And now, this new position provides a bigger platform to do that, and being part of this amazing team of committed caregivers and investigators is a remarkably positive experience.”

Pollock was recently diagnosed with cancer and had the opportunity to see first-hand the “team of committed caregivers” at the James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute. “The experience has brought me even closer to my patients.”

Patient Care: A Family Affair

Pollock grew up in Chicago, where his father, George Pollock, MD, PhD, was a prominent psychiatrist, serving as president of the American Psychiatric Association and inspiring three of his five children to choose medicine as their career paths.

Raphael Pollock attended Oberlin College where he majored in history. He graduated in 1972 and then attended the Saint Louis University School of Medicine.

“I saw how remarkable surgeons were in taking care of their patients, and I fell in love with it,” Pollock says of his third-year medical school surgical rotation. “It pulled all my interests in doing something with my hands and brain, and it dealt with serious problems where you could see the pathology right in front of you.”

Pollock was initially interested in becoming a burn surgeon and did his surgery residency at the University of Chicago and Rush Medical School. “One Christmas Eve, they brought two little girls in,” he says, recalling an incident in which a space heater in the girls’ home had caught fire, causing their rayon nightgowns to erupt in flames, leading to horrible burns. “After medical heroics for two weeks, both of the girls died, and it was too wrenching for me to think that I could do this for the next 30 years.”

This led Pollock to consider a career as a private practice general surgeon. Then, during his later years as a resident, he did a surgical oncology rotation. “Dr. Steven Economou, a senior cancer surgeon, took me under his wing,” Pollock says, calling this mentor “a master of clarity in thought, articulation and purposeful accomplishment.”

Fighting Cancer Becomes a Career

A surgical oncology fellowship at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston connected Pollock with another mentor, as well as a specialization in sarcomas, a type of cancer that develops in the bones and in soft tissues such as muscles, nerves and blood vessels.

“On one of my last days as a general surgery resident, I was in the E.R. and saw a teenager with a large sarcoma in the humerus bone in his arm,” Pollock says. He called the attending surgeon, who deemed this an oncologic emergency and ordered a radical amputation the next day. “That was my last operation as a resident.”

His initial rotation at MD Anderson was with the sarcoma medical oncology team.

“We were on rounds and there was a boy, about the same age as the teenager, with the same problem, but even worse,” Pollock says. “His humerus had fractured—we call that a pathologic fracture.”

When the attending physician asked the fellows for recommendations, Pollock spoke up, saying that radical amputation was the proper procedure in the case he’d seen less than a week before. “He looked at me like, ‘What planet did you come from?’” Pollock says of this career-changing moment.

Instead of an amputation, the patient underwent chemotherapy, radiation and then surgery, which included the replacement of his shoulder joint. “By the end of the summer, he was playing tennis again,” Pollock says.

His MD Anderson mentor was Dr. Richard Martin, a pioneer in surgical oncology for sarcoma patients. “He was this rare combination of technical brilliance and absolute personal humility,” Pollock says. “He enabled us to do things we didn’t think we could do.”

This jumpstarted Pollock’s career specializing in soft-tissue sarcomas—a rare disease that comprises about 1 percent of all solid tumor diagnoses. He has aspired to combine the technical talents of his mentors with an emphasis on clarity, accomplishment and humility, and to pass these qualities on to his mentees and colleagues.

Leading the Way to Better Cancer Research Collaboration

Pollock’s laboratory research career began during his surgical oncology fellowship at MD Anderson. “The NCI launched a new research training program in the early 1980s—the K08 Clinician-Investigator Award series. I was lucky enough to receive one of these early awards and chose to enroll in a PhD program in tumor immunology at the Graduate School of the Biological Sciences in Houston.”

He spent the next 10 years studying the impact of surgery on perioperative anti-tumor immunity mediated by NK cells, a subset of circulating lymphocytes. However, it was difficult to show that NK cells actually had a role against soft tissue sarcomas given the research methodologies available at that time.

“I was encouraged by several senior scientists at MD Anderson to begin examining the molecular drivers underlying sarcoma proliferation and metastasis, and this led to a new series of translational laboratory investigations focusing on molecularly-oriented sarcoma research. This has been the focus of our laboratory ever since.”

Pollock has also been a leader in the Sarcoma Alliance for Research through Collaboration (SARC), a consortium of about 40 cancer centers located around the world. “The concept is that soft-tissue sarcomas are very rare, and unless we band together and share our expertise and resources, we won’t make much progress,” Pollock says.

SARC was awarded an $11.5 million, five-year Specialized Programs of Research Excellence (SPORE) grant from the National Cancer Institute in 2012. Pollock was the initial principal investigator. “SPORE grants are typically awarded to an individual cancer center,” he says. “This was the first one awarded to a clinical trials group of participating cancer centers.” The grant is currently under review for further funding.

Pollock came to Ohio State in 2013 after 31 years at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, where he served as professor and head of surgery for 17 years. At Ohio State, Pollock has served in several leadership roles: vice chair for Clinical Affairs in the Department of Surgery; chief of the Division of Surgical Oncology; director of the Sarcoma Research Laboratory; Surgeon-in-Chief for The James and Surgeon-in-Chief for the Ohio State University Health Care System.

In his new position as director of the OSUCCC, Pollock plans to devote his efforts to “the critical task of supporting the entire research effort at one of the largest and best cancer centers,” he says. “The breadth, quality, and collaborative interest of the research here is certainly as strong as you’ll find anywhere.”

Doctor, Director, Researcher, Patient

Pollock has been the personal beneficiary of some of this outstanding research. He was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) in January 2017. John Byrd, MD, co-leader of the Leukemia Research Program at the OSUCCC, is one of the world’s leading experts on CLL. He developed Ibrutinib, an FDA-approved drug and a game-changing improvement for treating CLL patients.

“I’m very lucky to be in the right place,” says Pollock, who takes Ibrutinib daily. “I am so grateful to John and his colleagues for their compassion and knowledge.”

Pollock is “cautiously optimistic” about his long-term prognosis.

“It has added a little spice to this whole proposition,” he says. “And because there’s some uncertainty, it has also added a sense of urgency. I’m even more determined to create opportunities for all the amazing people here that will hopefully translate into even better care for our patients.”