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Three interview sessions: 23 February 2015, 18 June 2015, 2 July 2015
Total approximate duration: 2 hours 20 minutes
Interviewer: Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D.
To supporting materials, please contact:
Javier Garza, MSIS, firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Interview Subject:
Dr. Ronald DePinho came to MD Anderson in September of 2011 from Harvard University to succeed Dr. John Mendelsohn as the institution’s fourth president. He is a professor in the Department of Cancer Biology. Dr. DePinho’s research takes an integrated genomics and biological systems approach to several areas of focus: oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes; mechanisms driving telomeres and DNA damage; the role of cancer/stem cells and related developmental pathways in tumors; development of mouse models of human cancers; discovery of novel cancer therapies.
Under his executive leadership, his administration is reorganizing the institution into a research engine that can transform discoveries into products that can benefit patients.
Major Topics Covered:
Personal and educational background; martial arts
Research: molecular basis of disease; telomeres and aging
History of translational research
Developing a organizational concept that unites academia, industry, finance and other fields
Economic environment of academic healthcare institutions
Vision for MD Anderson as an academic/industry research engine; financing the new research model at MD Anderson
Strategies to change MD Anderson operations and culture
The Moon Shots Program; concept, operations, early results
The Institute for Applied Cancer Science
A note on transcription and the transcript:
This interview had been transcribed according to oral history best practices to preserve the conversational quality of spoken language (rather than editing it to written standards).
The interview subject has been given the opportunity to review the transcript and make changes: any substantial departures from the audio file are indicated with brackets [ ].
In addition, the Archives may have redacted portions of the transcript and audio file in compliance with HIPAA and/or interview subject requests.
The views expressed in this interview are solely the perspective of the interview subject. They are not to be interpreted as the official view of any other individual or of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Interview Session One: 23 February 2015
From an Early Interest in Biology to a Fascination with Developmental Processes
Chapter 01 / Educational Path
Deciding to Focus on the Molecular Basis of Disease
Chapter 02 / The Researcher
Work on Telomeres Leads to an Interest in Aging and Cancer
Chapter 03 / The Researcher
Martial Arts: A Mind/Body Practice that Feeds Success
Chapter 04 / Personal Background
Developing an Industry-Informed Approach to Research
Chapter 05 / Building/Transforming the Institution
An Optimal Moment to Lead an Institution in Driving Translational Research
Chapter 06 / Joining MD Anderson/Coming to Texas
Interview Session Two: 18 June 2015
A Complex Economic Environment Presents Challenges to an Academic Medical Center
Chapter 07 / Institutional Change
The Moon Shots Program: Concept, Operations, Some Results
Chapter 08 / An Institutional Unit
A Brief History of Translational Medicine
Chapter 09 / Overview
Lessons Learned from the First Years of the Moon Shots
Chapter 10 / The Administrator
Early Results from Two Moon Shot Programs: Women’s Cancer and Prevention
Chapter 11 / An Institutional Unit
Reflections on the Need to Support Both Team Science and Individual Investigators
Chapter 12 / MD Anderson Culture
Support for MD Anderson Faculty
Chapter 13 / Building the Institution
Interview Session Three: 2 July 2015
An Entrepreneurial versus Academic Mindset
Chapter 14 / Overview
The Institute for Applied Cancer Science:
A Unique Organizational Construct the Unites Academia and Industry
Chapter 15 / Building the Institution
Financing New Research Initiatives
Chapter 16 / Building the Institution
MD Anderson Poised at the Threshold of Opportunity
Chapter 17 / Institutional Mission and Values
Interview Session One: 23 February 2015 (listen/read)
Interview Identifier (listen/read)
Chapter 01 (Educational Path)
From an Early Interest in Biology to a Fascination with Developmental Processes (listen/read)
Dr. DePinho begins this Chapter by talking about his family. He grew up the child of Portuguese immigrants. His father was very poor, very religious; he came to the United States to earn money to bring other family members over and was active bringing people to the US throughout his life. He notes that he himself held jobs from the age of twelve and was expected to do well.
Next Dr. DePinho talks about his early Catholic education, where he learned discipline, respect, and humility. He explains that his parents scraped together resources to send him to private school. He also notes that they never steered him to any particular profession.
In high school, Dr. DePinho notes, he became interested in sports. he also “opened up his first frog” in biology class, which started his lifelong interest in biology and medicine. He also read William A. Nolen’s The Making of a Surgeon and during this time decided on a career in medicine.
Dr. DePinho next talks about going to Fordham University, where he majored in biology and art history, and then to Albert Einstein College of Medicine, which he selected because of his interest in neuroscience and his desire to stay in New York City. At this time, he says, he became fascinated with the complexity of developmental processes and how these can go awry, an interest that laid the groundwork for his later approach to cancer.
Chapter 02 (The Researcher)
Deciding to Focus on the Molecular Basis of Disease (listen/read)
In this Chapter, Dr. DePinho talks about the career transition that occurred during his internship and residency, when he became frustrated that he didn’t understand the molecular basis of disease. He explains that instead of subspecializing after his residency, he took a Postdoctoral Fellowship in a laboratory of Dr. Matthew Scharff in the Department of Cell Biology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, NY (1984-1985). He also worked on a Postdoctoral Fellowship with Dr. Fred Alt in the Department of Biochemistry & Biophysics (1984-1988).
Dr. DePinho explains that this was an exciting time to be working in a laboratory focused on immunology and genetics. He explains Dr. Alt’s work with immunology and his own studies. He explains that Fred Alt was cloning one of the first oncogenes to be discovered, and so he ended up working on oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes.
Next, Dr. DePinho explains, after having learned the basics, he began a full research career at Albert Einstein using genetically engineered mouse models to understand complex cell processes.
Dr. DePinho then talks about the prevailing “age of reductionism” while he held the view that diseases were polygenic and, for the first time, the technology existed to manipulate the genetics of mice to ask questions about the developmental biology of cancer cells.
Chapter 03 (The Researcher)
Work on Telomeres Leads to an Interest in Aging and Cancer (listen/read)
In this Chapter , Dr. DePinho describes the research that led him to focus specifically on cancer. He describes the “seminal moment” when the genetically engineered animals he used to develop his models began to develop cancers, but different diseases than humans: he realized the importance of cross-species differences. At this point, Dr. DePinho says, he became interested in telomeres. He explains their function in the development of cancer and notes that his laboratory engineered mice to have telomere dysfunction, which led them to manifest more humanlike disease formation. This led Dr. DePinho to his interest in the link between cancer and aging.
Dr. DePinho gives an example of how to understand melanoma using the mouse models and the RAS oncogene. He talks about shifting the research question posed to focus on tumor maintenance, recognizing that not all cells function over the life of a tumor. His studies proved that RAS was important in maintaining a tumor. He explains they then studied the component pathways and notes that this was the first time such a research question was investigated in mammalian systems. Dr. DePinho also explains that his studies led to the identification of pathways that were targetable via drugs.
Next Dr. DePinho talks about starting the biotech company, AVEO, to take laboratory discoveries to patients. A number of drugs were developed through this company. Dr. DePinho talks about the mentors who modeled success for him as he branched out into entrepreneurial initiatives.
Chapter 04 (Personal Background)
Martial Arts: A Mind/Body Practice that Feeds Success (listen/read)
In this Chapter , Dr. DePinho talks about the importance of martial arts in his life, interest that began in high school. Dr. DePinho explains that martial arts develops both the mind and the body. He notes that it cultivates concentration and the ability to perform under pressure. He was shy and vulnerable in high school, he explains, and martial arts practice gave him confidence. And during his internship and residency, it gave him the courage to pursue a scientific career.
Chapter 05 (Building/Transforming the Institution)
Developing an Industry-Informed Approach to Research (listen/read)
In this Chapter , Dr. DePinho talks about how he developed a new perspective on how to conduct research within academic institutions by using models adopted from industry.
He begins by noting that his martial arts practice gave him the courage to pursue a career as a physician-scientist. He says that translational research was just emerging, and he always wanted to ask clinical questions through basic research. He next talks about the influence of his mentors, Martin Scharf and Fred Alt. He talks about lessons he learned from Dr. Alt.
Next, Dr. DePinho talks about the influence of his father’s death from cancer and feeling powerless to help his “hero.” At the time he was already studying aging and cancer, but he realized that elegant studies had to be converted into translational work that could help patients directly.
At this time, Harvard University was reorganizing its institutes in the Dana Farber system and Dr. DePinho was recruited. He explains that he honed his interests in cancer at the Dana Farber Institute and organized an effort on gastrointestinal cancer and pancreatic cancer. This research was well funded and good progress made.
Dr. DePinho explains that he was starting to learn a great deal about the effect of silos in drug development, as they isolated pharmaceutical research from clinical and academic areas of activity. He became convinced of the importance of integrating these areas of activity, a perspective that led to the creation of the Belfer Institute.
Dr. DePinho explains the unique features of the Belfer Institute and gives an example of how activities there worked using an example of how they developed a pipeline from discoveries made via the Human Cancer Genome Project to drug development. He stresses that this was done on an industrial scale rather than through individual labs. He notes that setting up collaborations was not easy, because it required a cultural shift.
Dr. DePinho next talks about the lessons he learned from his experiences at the Belfer Institute.
Chapter 06 (Joining MD Anderson/Coming to Texas)
An Optimal Moment to Lead an Institution in Driving Translational Research (listen/read)
In this Chapter , Dr. DePinho explains why the time was right for him to make a move from Harvard University to MD Anderson. He notes that he was very happy at Harvard, but felt that many factors converged to create an optimal moment to apply the ideas that were maturing in his area of cancer research. He felt there was tremendous potential to act as a leader in converting knowledge about cancer into new drugs and diagnostic techniques. He also notes that he recognized MD Anderson’s culture of collegiality and team science and resources available to export this vision of research.
Dr. DePinho next talks about his Moon Shots Program. He sketches the overall structure of the Moon Shots and notes that “we are learning as we go to make this effective.”
Interview Identifier (listen/read)
Chapter 07 (Institutional Change)
A Complex Economic Environment Presents Challenges to an Academic Medical Center (listen/read)
Dr. DePinho sketches the challenges that academic medical centers face in today’s economic climate. He notes the positive aims of the Affordable Care Act, which is shifting institutions away from a reactive, provider-centric system to systems that provide evidence-based, quality care. Dr. DePinho also explains that academic medical centers face special challenges because they have the complex mission of providing care and creating new knowledge while training the next generation of scholars and leaders.
Next, Dr. DePinho talks about responses that he has led at MD Anderson to address this situation, including: streamlining institution functions for more efficiency; instituting electronic health records; increasing the MD Anderson network to increase patient volume; increasing faculty effectiveness at winning grants; developing alliances with the private sector; building philanthropy; developing the Moon Shots program.
Chapter 08 (An Institutional Unit)
The Moon Shots Program: Concept, Operations, Some Results (listen/read)
Dr. DePinho explains that he selected the label “Moon Shot” for MD Anderson’s new cancer research goals because the phrase invokes key ideas to capture the public’s imagination: a sense of urgency, discovery driven projects with a clear goal. He also stresses the central role of multi-disciplinary collaborations between scholars and pragmatic technical people from industry.
Dr. DePinho notes successes in bringing in philanthropic dollars and revenue from intellectual property.
He sketches how the individual Moon Shots were selected and set up. He explains the “Platforms” of practical resources to help maximize the institution’s “directional capability” of converting discovery into such care mechanisms as drugs, policy making, and educational materials.
Chapter 09 (Overview)
A Brief History of Translational Medicine (listen/read)
Dr. DePinho talks about the evolution of translational collaborations since the late 80s, where then was a “cultural divide” between basic scientists and clinicians. He notes that it took fifteen years for the medical community and life sciences to embrace translational work.
He states that medicine is now at a similar point and must address the issue of why academic medicine does not do a good job of systematically translating ideas. He also explains why industry does not fully translate ideas.
Chapter 10 (The Administrator)
Lessons Learned from the First Years of the Moon Shots (listen/read)
Dr. DePinho reflects on a lesson he learned from instituting the Moon Shots Program during his first years as institution president: “You can’t communicate enough.” He notes how difficult it has been to create change by adding a new dimension to MD Anderson’s mission. The early success of the Moon Shots has helped convince people of the value of the plan. He lists initiatives designed to engage the faculty.
Chapter 11 (An Institutional Unit)
Early Results from Two Moon Shot Programs: Women’s Cancer and Prevention (listen/read)
To demonstrate the success of the Moon Shots Program, Dr. DePinho talks about results from the Women’s Cancer Program and the Prevention Program.
He begins by talking about strides that multi-disciplinary approaches have made against ovarian cancer and the way in which the new treatment approach opens windows of opportunity to collect even more data on the effectiveness of new drug treatments.
Next, he talks about melanoma prevention and explains that the Cancer Control Platform brings together experts from a wide range of fields, including professional legal experts, who would normally never interact so they can have an impact on policy. Dr. DePinho talks about the impact this platform has had on tanning bed legislation and providing education about the dangers of UV light and tobacco.
Chapter 12 (MD Anderson Culture)
Reflections on the Need to Support Both Team Science and Individual Investigators (listen/read)
Dr. DePinho talks about the shift in emphasis over the past decades from single investigator studies to multiple-investigator and multiple institution studies. He also notes how important it is to continue to support individual investigators despite this trend. He mentions Dr. James Allison and his breakthroughs in immunology to demonstrate the impact that single investigators can have. He lists some multi-institution studies MD Anderson is setting up and notes that the following day, the Vice Premier of China is due to visit MD Anderson and discuss a new collaborative program.
Chapter 13 (Building the Institution)
Support for MD Anderson Faculty (listen/read)
Dr. DePinho notes that MD Anderson’s faculty may be one of the must “supported faculty” in the country. He then lists areas in which the institution is making improvements to support faculty and their work. In addition to infrastructural resources, he explains that the institution is offering a new mentoring program to help faculty plan their careers and also opening up more grant opportunities.
Interview Identifier (listen/read)
Chapter 14 (Overview)
An Entrepreneurial versus Academic Mindset (listen/read)
Dr. DePinho sketches the differences between the mindset of the entrepreneurial researcher and more conventionally academic researcher.
He explains that while the academic focuses on discovery, the entrepreneur aims to convert discoveries into practice/products by engaging strategies from outside his/her content arebusiness development, clinical development, and financing.
Dr. DePinho notes several ways in which his martial arts practice gives him personal tools to engage in entrepreneurial activity.
He talks about the period in the 1990s when biotech industries began to develop products from scientific discoveries. He notes that science and institutions are poised to bring together all the different components of activity needed to benefit patients.
Chapter 15 (Building the Institution)
The Institute for Applied Cancer Science: A Unique Organizational Construct the Unites Academia and Industry (listen/read)
Dr. DePinho explains that his experience establishing the Belfer Institute at Harvard University enabled him to develop MD Anderson’s Institute for Applied Cancer Science (IACS).
He sketches lessons learned from inefficiencies and failures to set up good clinical trials and generate useful products at the Belfer Institute. He then explains that these issues have been resolved at MD Anderson by bringing clinical experts into the process early to shape research design. The Institute’s goal is to generate new drugs and to conduct more and more effective research with drugs from biotech industries and pharma.
Dr. DePinho sketches the connections between the IACS and MD Anderson’s other institutes and the Moon Shots Program. He explains how MD Anderson researchers submitted proposals to work with the IACS.
He notes that academic medicine can take risks and conduct research that is slow to yield results. He gives an example of a class of drugs that has slowly been proven to treat AML (adult acute myeloid leukemia) and pancreatic cancer.
Chapter 16 (Building the Institution)
Financing New Research Initiatives (listen/read)
Dr. DePinho sketches the business model that is financing the new scheme for research at the Institute for Applied Cancer Science, a unique organizational model in academic cancer centers. He explains that philanthropic dollars have been used to set up the system and establish a foundation for faculty to bring in revenue from grants and contracts. Eventually intellectual property income from products generated will provide a revenue stream.
[The recorder is paused]
Dr. DePinho lists other ways that MD Anderson will maximize income streams through philanthropy, investments in clinical operations and in research faculty, as well as the Graduate School and trainee programs. He also notes that faculty are given support in negotiating favorable contracts. He notes that MD Anderson expertise will be disseminated via iCloud, smart phones and other technologies.
Chapter 17 (Institutional Mission and Values)
MD Anderson Poised at the Threshold of Opportunity (listen/read)