From Buffalo to Columbus

Caligiuri at AACR

Michael Caligiuri, MD, had his future all mapped out.

“I thought I’d be a pediatrician in inner-city Buffalo,” said Dr. Caligiuri, who grew up in Buffalo, New York, the oldest son in a working-class family that included 10 children (two boys, eight girls). 

As you can guess, Dr. Caligiuri’s career plan took a few twists and turns from his plans, considering he eventually wound up in Columbus as Director of The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center and CEO of the James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James). Passion and compassion are the threads that wove their way through Dr. Caligiuri’s career arc.

“I’ve been fortunate; I get paid to do something I love to do,” Dr. Caligiuri said. “I’ve had the good fortune of having opportunities … and I’m relentless in the pursuit of my goals; I do not give up.”

Dr. Caligiuri knew he wanted to be a doctor when he was 7 or 8 years old. But here’s the thing: He didn’t like science, which is kind of important for someone who wants to go to medical school.

“I hated science, I really did,” Dr. Caligiuri said. “I prided myself in never taking an upper-level science course in college or medical school.”

Dr. Caligiuri – and his siblings – learned early on the importance of hard work. His father was a salesman, and the entire family ran the concession stand at the nearby bingo parlor on weekends to bring in extra money. After Dr. Caligiuri graduated from State University of New York at Buffalo in 1979 with a degree in humanities, he spent a year in Italy studying art, opera and literature.

It was a transformative year.

“What I learned was if you’re not interested in something, it’s because you don’t understand it,” Dr. Caligiuri said. “I learned that through art history, that everything is fascinating – you just need to know the story behind the painting. That’s an important lesson and it opened me up to science.”

Due in part to this experience, helping people understand complex topics, such as cancer and cancer research, is now one of Dr. Caligiuri’s many specialties.

His year in Italy included a meeting with Pope John Paul II, which in turn provided him with a story to help break the ice with a woman he met and was immediately attracted to: Ana Maria de Jesus. It worked, they were married in 1985 and have three children (Cristina, Marie and Michael).

Dr. Caligiuri attended the Stanford University School of Medicine, where he made two important discoveries that would shape his career: A career as a pediatrician “just didn’t resonate with me,” and he now loved science, or, to be more precise, he loved how science and scientific discoveries save lives.

“I was a scientist, I just didn’t know it,” he said.

The “aha!” moment came late one night in the early 1980s, while he was in medical school, in the midst of a pathology rotation and “my attending said ‘let’s try Cyclosporine,’” Dr. Caligiuri said. The patient had recently undergone a kidney transplant and his body was rejecting the new organ.

“The attending told me that if I stayed up all night with him to administer the Cyclosporine and monitor it, he had a chance,” Dr. Caligiuri said. “I was skeptical.”

This new, anti-rejection wonder drug worked. “That just blew me away, that what we learned in the classroom could be applied and save lives,” Dr. Caligiuri said.

This inspired him to want to do transplants. The only problem was, he wasn’t interested in becoming a surgeon. “I asked if there was anything else that could be transplanted,” Dr. Caligiuri said. “They told me about this new thing, bone marrow transplants for leukemia patients. And I said, ‘OK, I have to do bone marrow transplants.’”

He did, at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute of the Harvard Medical School and then, starting in 1990, at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute of the State University of New York at Buffalo School of Medicine, where he was also an assistant professor.

Dr. Caligiuri started his own lab at Roswell Park and began to gain a national reputation for his research on the molecular biology of leukemia and the development of vaccines to prevent lymphoma. More than 1,000 leukemia and lymphoma patients have taken part in his clinical trials.

At Roswell Park, Dr. Caligiuri’s mentor was Clara Bloomfield, MD, a leading leukemia and lymphoma researcher and chief of the Division of Oncology at the State University of New York at Buffalo, as well as chair of the Division of Medicine at Roswell Park.

Dr. Bloomfield was recruited by the OSUCCC – James and named director of the OSUCCC in 1997. Recruited along with Dr. Bloomfield was her husband, Albert de la Chapelle, MD, PhD, one of the world’s leading cancer geneticists; and Dr. Caligiuri, who came as the Associate Director for Clinical Research of the OSUCCC and co-director of the Division of Hematology and Oncology (along with Dr. Bloomfield).

This is the second story in a six-part series on Michael A. Caligiuri, MD. The series explores Dr. Caligiuri’s background, career and accomplishments leading up to being named President of the American Association for Cancer Research. Links to the other parts of the series are below.

Part 1: Reaching a Perfect Rating
Part 3: Turning Around the OSUCCC – James
Part 4: A Day in the Life
Part 5: The Three Pillars of Leadership
Part 6: What's Next – Improving Upon Perfection