Where Patients Reign Supreme
Cancer Program’s Chief Aim is Quality Clinical Care
Michael A. Caligiuri, MD, never tires of telling the tale. Years ago when he was on a nephrology rotation as a student at Stanford Medical School, he and his colleagues saved a life by “tricking” the body of a kidney transplant patient into accepting the foreign organ.
“Finding a way to manipulate the immune system so the body would accept the organ—that blew me away,” recalls Caligiuri, director of Ohio State’s Comprehensive Cancer Center and CEO of The James.
That experience, combined with his interest in helping patients with life-threatening illnesses such as cancer, convinced him that he should train in internal medicine, oncology and bone marrow transplantation at Harvard University’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, where he also did a postdoctoral study in immunology.
Since then, he has been fascinated by the many ways science can benefit medicine for the good of patients. “I’m blessed to have found what I truly love to do: medical research that can be clinically applied to help patients overcome illness,” he says.
His ambition has influenced his more than a dozen years as leader of Ohio State’s cancer program, where the ultimate goal is to translate discoveries to innovative and compassionate clinical care that will help create a cancer-free world.
Patients Always Top Priority
Caligiuri’s enthusiasm for improving and extending clinical care is reflected in The James’ medical faculty, including long-timers and those who have been recruited since he arrived at Ohio State in 1997 as associate director of clinical research.
A prime example of the latter is John C. Byrd, MD, who directs the Division of Hematology at Ohio State and co-leads the Leukemia Research Program at the OSUCCC – James. Byrd is internationally known for translational studies that have found several therapeutic agents to be effective in treating patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) and related leukemias and lymphomas.
But despite his scientific prowess, his favorite day of the week is Tuesday, when he spends up to 12 hours in clinic providing care for patients with CLL and other leukemias.
“Providing the best possible care to our patients is paramount— all of our work here is directed toward that end,” Byrd says. “Seeing patients and family members in my Tuesday clinic is always a pleasant reminder of the potential we have to improve the lives of people who turn to us for help.”
Byrd also keeps patients foremost in mind when he leads studies to develop and test targeted agents that more precisely attack each patient’s biologically unique cancer with fewer toxic side effects — replacing what he calls the “sledgehammer” approach of older chemotherapies.
David Carbone, MD, PhD, a renowned lung cancer specialist who was recruited to Ohio State in 2012 to establish a thoracic oncology center, has devoted his entire career to studying this deadly disease and finding better ways to treat it.
Carbone says he is determined to make a difference in the field through research, by training other physicians and, above all, by caring for patients with this malignancy, which is the leading cancer killer among both men and women in the United States.
The physician can keenly empathize with patients through his own experience with cancer. In 1999 he was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. His treatment involved removing part of his left lung and receiving chemotherapy and chest radiation, similar to treatments he often recommends for his lung cancer patients.
“The experience gave me a better understanding of the psychological impact of receiving a life-threatening diagnosis, both on me as a patient and on my family,” Carbone says, adding that it also gave him insight about the value of inspiring hope.
“Clinicians should be very cautious about taking away hope,” he says, explaining that statistics apply to populations, not individuals. “I’ve seen patients on death’s door come back to a normal lifestyle, at least for a while. And I’ve seen patients with metastatic lung cancer who have lived only a few weeks, and those who have lived 20 years with the disease. Nobody can predict the future with certainty.”
Roman Skoracki, MD, was recruited to Ohio State in 2014 to direct the oncology section in the Department of Plastic Surgery, where physicians and other caregivers are dedicated to restoring wholeness to people who suffer from physical deformities, including deformities stemming from cancer or its treatment.
Skoracki is an expert in oncologic reconstruction. His areas of clinical expertise include lymphedema surgery, reconstructive microsurgery of the head, neck and breast, sarcoma reconstruction and abdominal wall reconstruction, among other areas. All of his work is focused on improving patient outcomes physically and psychologically.
“The clinical staff at The James is composed of a number of enthusiastic, professional and highly innovative individuals who are all very interested in collaboration and multidisciplinary teamwork to optimize patient care,” Skoracki says. “This multidisciplinary approach to each individual patient represents the real strength of world-class cancer hospitals such as The James. I’m honored to be part of this highly functioning team and consider it a privilege to care for our patients.”
Skoracki is among just a few surgeons in the country performing two breakthrough surgical treatments to relieve lymphedema, a condition characterized by swelling and a feeling of extreme heaviness in the upper and lower extremities, as well as the head and neck, among some patients who have undergone surgery or adjuvant treatments for breast and other cancers.
“With his expertise as a microvascular plastic surgeon, Dr. Skoracki offers hope and relief for patients suffering from lymphedema,” says Michael Miller, MD, chair of the Department of Plastic Surgery. “He is one of only a few surgeons nationwide performing two new microvascular procedures shown to relieve lymphedema’s painful symptoms by re-routing lymphatic channels to allow proper fluid drainage.”
As an esteemed medical scientist and surgeon who was recruited to Ohio State in 2013 to direct the Division of Surgical Oncology, Raphael Pollock, MD, PhD, has one overarching goal: find ways to better manage patients with sarcoma, his specialty.
Sarcomas are relatively rare cancers that arise from cells resembling those that compose bone and a variety of soft tissues. Skeletal sarcomas include osteosarcoma, chondrosarcoma and Ewing sarcoma. Soft tissue sarcomas (STS), of which there are more than 100 subtypes, occur in striated and smooth muscle, fibrous and fatty tissue, blood vessels, nerve tissue, tendons and the lining of joints.
Grant support to study sarcomas is limited, but Pollock is principal investigator for an $11.5 million multi-institutional Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) grant from the National Cancer Institute that is designed to develop new treatments. The grant supports several projects, including one led by Pollock that involves a clinical trial to evaluate a systemic therapy possibility for patients with genetically complex STS.
“There is an essential need for innovative, less toxic, molecular-based therapies for all solid tumors, especially in the understudied rare orphan illnesses such as soft tissue sarcoma,” Pollock says. “If we had better options for patients so afflicted, the need for sometimes very extensive surgical interventions could be significantly diminished.
“As a sarcoma surgeon, I have no concerns about being put out of business; in fact, this is my fondest wish,” he adds. “And for my patients, being told that they suffer from a rare tumor is not particularly helpful: For these people and their families, these unusual tumors all too often, at least temporarily, have the potential to take over and become almost their entire universe.”