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Amid cancer breakthroughs, hospitals aim for top talent, clinical trials

Monday, December 14, 2015

Photo of Dean Laurie GlimcherDean Laurie Glimcher Last month, in a wide-ranging speech announcing he wouldn’t run for the office, Vice President Joe Biden said if he could have been any kind of president, he’d want to be the one who ended cancer.

“The things that are just about to happen — we can make them real with an absolute national commitment to end cancer as we know it today,” said Biden. His son had died of brain cancer months earlier.

Since the war on cancer began during Richard Nixon’s presidency nearly 45 years ago, it has often seemed as if things were about to happen.

But recent advances in immunotherapy, which uses the body’s immune system to fight tumors, and epigenetics, which help scientists understand how tumor cells replicate and why they respond to certain treatments, mean new clinical trials in genetic therapies and immunostimulants are being developed at breakneck speed.

“This is an enormously exciting time to be a cancer biologist,” said Laurie Glimcher, an immunologist and the dean of Weill Cornell Medicine. “It really does feel different this time. This is truly transformative, and I don’t say that lightly. This actually is revolutionary.”

The excitement has led to a flood of investment and recruitment among some of New York’s leading medical centers as they compete for the brightest minds, dwindling federal grants and opportunities to partner with drug companies to create and test the latest therapies.

“We feel we need to dramatically increase our tumor immunology so we understand the details of how the immune system tries to respond to tumors … and strengthen our knowledge of epigenetics,” said Benjamin Neel, director of NYU Langone’s Laura and Isaac Perlmutter Cancer Center. “And on the clinical side, we want to improve our ability to go to clinical trials. For many patients right now, because of all the new therapies coming down from pharma, the best therapy is a clinical trial.”

In the past few months, Langone has announced a series of high-profile recruits to bolster its lineup.

Shohei Koide — known for research into monobodies, or synthetic binding proteins — will lead the Laura and Isaac Perlmutter Cancer Center’s new biologics program starting March 1.

In August, Andrew Chi was named chief of neuro-oncology, having been hired from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. In September, Langone announced it had recruited immunotherapy expert Jeff Weber from the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute in Tampa, Florida, to serve as co-director of Langone’s melanoma program.

“Having him here gives us an imprimatur of clinical trials that are worth investing in,” Neel said.

Neel said Langone is still looking to recruit four to six more clinical trialists.

“It’s very simple,” he said, explaining the urgency of the hires. “We have an aging population. Cancer is a disease of aging.”

Langone isn’t alone. Memorial Sloan-Kettering, North Shore-LIJ, Montefiore and others are also looking to boost their capacity for clinical trials.

Weill Cornell Medicine announced earlier this year that it had hired Harold Varmus, director of the National Cancer Institute and co-winner of the Nobel Prize.

That coup followed the poaching of Langone’s Silvia Formenti, an expert in the use of radiation therapy for the treatment of cancer, and Howard Fine, a neuro-oncologist who has been involved in more than 100 brain tumor clinical trials.

“This is partly driven by the excitement around new therapeutics in cancer,” Glimcher said of their hiring. “We can mine human gene sequence, which we could never do before. We can visualize with astonishing clarity tissues and organs for humans.”

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This is an excerpt of an article that appeared in Politico. Read the full story here.