Turning Around the OSUCCC – James

Caligiuri Pelotonia

Michael Caligiuri, MD, came to The Ohio State University in 1997.

The foundation of The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James) was already quite solid, and much of the credit for this belongs to David Schuller, MD.

“Dave was the first director here and it was his tenacity that built the Comprehensive Cancer Center and The James,” said Dr. Caligiuri, the current Director and CEO of the OSUCCC – James. “Dave was a world-renowned head and neck cancer surgeon and built this amazing center for head-and-neck cancer surgery. And he was a staunch defender of The James at a time when there were people who didn’t think there was a need for a cancer center in central Ohio.”

When Dr. Caligiuri arrived, it was time to expand upon the foundation that Dr. Schuller had built.

“The genius of Dave was he understood this and he went to the James Foundation Board, and they raised $50 million,” Dr. Caligiuri said.

Some of the $50 million was used to recruit Clara Bloomfield, MD, , and Dr. Caligiuri. The plan was for Dr. Bloomfield to run and build the OSUCCC, Dr. de la Chapelle to create a top-notch human cancer genetics department, and for Dr. Caligiuri to co-lead the hematology and oncology department (along with Dr. Bloomfield) and also serve as Associate Director for Clinical Research. Dr. Schuller continued as head of The James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute.

The OSUCCC was not producing the breadth and depth of research the National Cancer Institute (NCI) required to earn an excellent rating when the three landed in Columbus.

“We were one of the first institutions to receive the comprehensive cancer designation back in 1976. We’d never lost it in 20 years and we were about to lose it,” Dr. Caligiuri said.

At the time, the NCI scored comprehensive cancer centers with letter grades.

“We had received a C-minus,” Dr. Caligiuri said, adding that normally the NCI awarded funding for five-year cycles. However, the C-minus led to only four years of funding, after which, the OSUCCC would be re-evaluated.

“Clara asked for an extension (on the evaluation) when we got here, but the NCI said no,” Dr. Caligiuri said. “Clara had a lot of pressure on her to turn it around and we only had six months to prepare for the next NCI evaluation.”

The first step was to recruit the best and brightest cancer scientists.

“We immediately got some points for Clara and Albert, who were very well known, and I was an up-and-comer,” Dr. Caligiuri said. “And then we made some huge hires and they brought the members of their labs here with them.”

The infusion of talent led to an improved score from the NCI.

“We went from a C-minus to a B and five years of funding,” said Dr. Caligiuri, who took over as Director of the OSUCCC in 2003 and CEO of the James in 2008. The NCI awarded the OSUCCC its highest possible rating, an exceptional, in 2010. But still, the OSUCCC was a few points short of perfection.

“They wanted more research in solid tumors, so we recruited some of the top people in this area,” Dr. Caligiuri said.

All this work and recruitment led to a perfect score in the most recent NCI evaluation of the OSUCCC.

Dr. Caligiuri has continued and sped up the recruiting train Dr. Bloomfield started.

“My pitch to people is that if opportunity and growth float your boat, this is the place for you,” Dr. Caligiuri said. “Working here is a gold mine of opportunity for the right person.”

Another quality Dr. Caligiuri looks for when he recruits people is passion. “I want people who wake up in the morning and can’t wait to get to work,” he said.

Ted Teknos, MD, is one of Dr. Caligiuri’s recruits. He came to the OSUCCC – James in 2008 and is chair of the Department of Otolaryngology. “The promise of what they were building brought me here,” Dr. Teknos said. “I believed in Mike and his vision.”

One of the goals in Dr. Caligiuri’s recruiting plan was to “do away with physicians who dealt with more than one type of cancer,” he said. “We recruited people who were experts, the best, in dealing with one type of cancer.” At the OSUCCC – James, “There is No Routine Cancer” is more than a slogan, it’s the mindset and daily mission.

The next step in building the OSUCCC – James was improving the already strong connections with the community.

“No money, no mission,” is how Dr. Caligiuri explained the importance of connecting with the community to raise awareness and funds for the research necessary to beat cancer. Federal funding was in the midst of a slow decline that continues, he explained, adding to the urgency to increase the local fundraising efforts.

“It started with Dr. (Arthur G.) James, who got together with the leaders of the community, rallied the philanthropic community and told them that ‘we need to do this here,’” Dr. Caligiuri said the creation of the OSUCCC – James. “Dave (Schuller) continued that and had an incredible connection with the community.”

Dr. Caligiuri noted several fundraising events: The Block Memorial Tournament, Buckeye Cruise for Cancer, Celebration for Life and events benefitting the Stefanie Spielman Fund for Breast Cancer Research like Step Up for Stefanie’s Champions. And, whenever and wherever he speaks to a group of people, he talks about Pelotonia, and urges people to join this fundraising bicycle ride he created in 2009. To date, the ride has raised more than $130 million.

“I’ve yet to hear from someone who’s participated (in Pelotonia) who didn’t fully enjoy the experience,” said Dr. Caligiuri, who rides the 180-mile route every year, thanks every rider and volunteer he sees and poses for a lot of photos.

What Dr. James and Dr. Schuller started, Dr. Caligiuri has continued. He is asked to speak at scores of events, and always presents the mission of the OSUCCC – James in a clear and passionate voice.

Building a world-class cancer hospital was the next step in the plan.

“The idea started about 10 years ago when we realized we were running out of space,” Dr. Caligiuri said. “Eventually our data showed we had the resources to build a large cancer hospital.”

The result is the new James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute, one of the most modern, well-equipped cancer hospitals in the world. It opened in December 2015.

What drives Dr. Caligiuri to constantly work to bring in more top talent, connect with the community and build the best facilities is his unwavering determination to end cancer.

“When I was in med school, nobody lived with cancer, there were no outpatient clinics,” he said during his recent Fireside Chat. “Today, everyone here knows someone successfully living with cancer or cured of cancer.”

This is the third 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 2: From Buffalo to Columbus
Part 4: A Day in the Life
Part 5: The Three Pillars of Leadership