Submitted: 19 October 2017
Three sessions: 23 May 2016, 1 July 2016, 9 November 2016
Total approximate duration: 4.5 hours
Interviewer: Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D.
For supplementary materials:
Please contact, the Historical Resources Center, Research Medical Library:
Javier Garza, MSIS, firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Interview Subject:
Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD (b. 3 August 1953, Edmonton, Canada) was recruited to MD Anderson in 1994 to Chair the Department of Molecular Oncology and serve as Chief of the Section of Molecular Therapeutics. In 2006 he founded the first systems biology department focused on cancer in the US. He has served as Chair of the Department of Systems Biology [in the Division of Science] since that time. He has served as co-director of the Zayed Institute for Personalized Cancer Therapy, since 2010 and co-head of the Women's Cancer Moon Shot since 2013. Dr. Mills’ research focuses on the PI3K pathway, lysophospholipids, the genomics and genetics of women’s cancers, and identifying and characterizing a number of potential oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes.
Major Topics Covered:
Personal background; educational path
Professional path prior to MD Anderson
Research areas: immunology, targeted therapy, interleukin-2, Women’s Cancer Moon Shot
Institutional development: Department of Systems Biology, Kleberg Institute, Zayed Institute
Leadership and contributions in a collaborative context
The value and challenges of team science; creating a team-science culture
The value and challenges of collecting and “curating” big data
See below for a table of contents and summaries of topics in each chapter.
To download a complete transcript click here.
About 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.
Interview Session One: May 23, 2016
An Education Designed to Keep Options Open
Chapter 01 / Educational Path
Medical School with a Path to Research and Team Science
Chapter 02 / Educational Path
Developing a Researcher’s Approach; Observations on the Current Job Market and Team Science
Chapter 03 / Professional Path
The Challenging Job Market for Researchers and for Team Scientists
Chapter 04 / Overview
From Immunology to Targeted Therapy; More Observations about Team Science Research on Interleukin-2
Chapter 05 / Professional Path
Recruited to MD Anderson; A History of Translational Research at MD Anderson
Chapter 06 / Overview
Major Roles Building Translational Research
Chapter 07 / The Administrator
Interview Session Two: July 1, 2016
Department Names Reflect Shifts in an Institution and in Cancer
Chapter 08 / Building the Institution
The World’s First Cancer-Directed Department of Systems Biology Emerges from
a Shift in Approach to Cancer
Chapter 09 / Building the Institution
A Controversial Department Evolves: On Recruitment, Flexibility, and the Value of Failure
Chapter 10 / Building the Institution
The Cancer Genome Atlas and the Positive Side of Serving as Department Chair
Chapter 11 / Overview
The Kleberg Center for Molecular Markers
Chapter 12 / Building the Institution
The Zayed Institute for Personalized Cancer Therapy, Part I
Chapter 13 / Building the Institution
On Leadership, Leading, and Dealing with Kids
Chapter 14 / Overview
The Zayed Institute for Personalized Cancer Therapy, Part II
Chapter 15 / Building the Institution
Interview Session Three: November 9, 2016
Creating Support for Team Science: The Challenges and Possible Solutions
Chapter 16 / Overview
The Challenges of Big Data; Developing “Clinical Trial Grade” Data to Foster Data Use
Chapter 17 / Overview
Educating, Hiring and Retaining Team Scientists: A Challenging Time
Chapter 18 / Overview;
About the Moon Shots: Philosophy, Timelines, and Challenges
Chapter 19 / Overview
The “Unholy Triad Moon Shot” and the Women’s Cancer Moon Shots
Chapter 20 / The Researcher
The Moon Shots at a National Level
Chapter 21 / Overview
Interview Session One: May 23, 2016
Interview Identifier (listen/read)
Chapter 01 (Educational Path)
An Education Designed to Keep Options Open (listen/read)
Dr. Mills begins this chapter by sketching his blue-collar roots and noting that he was the first person in his family to graduate from college. He talks about his early interest in science, setting it in the context of broader interests. He explains that his aim in college (1975, Bachelors of Medical Science, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada) was to “keep as many options open as possible,” which he accomplished by majoring in biochemistry and minoring in political science. He notes how this sensibility of preserving breadth influences his current strategy of recruiting broadly so the department “gains by integrating across areas.”
Segment 02 (Educational Path)
Medical School with a Path to Research and Team Science (listen/read)
Dr. Mills discusses the Canadian system in which he received his Bachelors of Medical Science in 1975 at the University of Alberta (Edmonton, Canada), leading to his MD in 1977. He also explains how he approached medical training with the intent of going into research: medical training gave him the breadth he needed for research by providing an understanding of how the body worked; he decided to specialize in obstetrics and gynecology because the question of why the mother’s body does not reject a fetus is an analogue to the question of why a host does not reject a tumor. Dr. Mills also explains that he wanted to go into research in order to have a greater impact on patients. He notes that medical school at that time was very clinically focused and that he felt some tension with other students and faculty with that mindset.
Next Dr. Mills comments on the shift in the focus of biomedical research to team science and talks about the importance of team sports in training individuals to work on research teams. He notes he is proud of his history of collaboration.
Segment 03 (Professional Path)
Developing a Researcher’s Approach; Observations on the Current Job Market and Team Science (listen/read)
Dr. Mills sketches his next phase of professional training, beginning with his fellowship at Flinders Medical Center (Adelaide, Australia, 1/1976-1/1978), where he focused on immunology and beta-cell immune responses and worked with Warren Jones. He also notes that he experienced a very different –and positive—approach to professional training that he has tried to emulate. He compares the Canadian and Australian healthcare systems.
Next, Dr. Mills talks about his work at the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children (Research Fellow, Division of Immunology, The Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, Canada, E. Gelfand, 1/1982-1/1985). This program, he explains, solidified the conceptual and administrative framework he now uses to approach research and also his attitudes toward mentoring.
Dr. Mills explains some difficulties in replicating the situation at Toronto Hospital at MD Anderson. He notes that “science needs to come from the bottom up, not the top down.”
Segment 04 (Overview)
The Challenging Job Market for Researchers and for Team Scientists (listen/read)
Dr. Mills says that one of the most exciting things about being a department chair is having a hand in helping trainees mature. Here he reflects on several issues. He begins by observing that it is “painful” that there are so few jobs for talented scientists and explain what the challenges are, including how the focus on team science has created obstacles for individual scientists.
Chapter 05 (Professional Path)
From Immunology to Targeted Therapy; More Observations about Team Science; Research on Interleukin-2 (listen/read)
About 16 minutes
Dr. Mills talks about the evolution of his work once he took a position in the Department of Immunology (Hospital for Sick Children University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada, 1/1982- 1/1985) where he shifted his perspective from immunology to signal transduction as a therapeutic target. He describes his promotion track leading to his final role as Director of the Department of Oncology, Oncology Research (1/1990-1/1994).
He talks about his relationship with Lou Siminovitch with whom he would discuss management and team building issues. He talks about team science in the biological sciences in the early nineties, explains that the system of allocating grant money influences how science took shape, and gives a definition of translational research.
Next, Dr. Mills talks about research he conducted “at the interface between breast and ovarian cancer.” He talks about studies he conducted during his PhD program looking at how IL-2 could regulate leukocytes, leading to clinical trials targeting pathways regulating a novel growth factor.
Chapter 06 (Overview)
Recruited to MD Anderson; A History of Translational Research at MD Anderson (listen/read)
Dr. Mills first tells how he was recruited to MD Anderson by Robert Bast, MD, VP of Translational Research, to set up “the best ovarian research center.” He explains why he left Toronto Hospital and cites the fact that “no other institution has more potential to make a difference.”
Next, Dr. Mills sketches the history of translational research at MD Anderson. He begins with the 1970s, noting that the patient driven clinical research at that time was “not real team science.” He talks about the context for research under Charles LeMaistre and the VP of Research, Frederick Becker [oral history interview] and the vestiges of their approach still lingering. He explains that the institution has now embraced the concept that research is a driver in patient outcomes.
Dr. Mills explains that leaders need to function as change agents and set in place processes that allow the success of research. He then compares the approach of John Mendelsohn, who allowed institutional change to be driven from the bottom up, with Ronald DePinho, who has taken the opposite approach as he framed the question, Is research progress an engineering and implementation question or do we lack the basic research to make progress at this time.
Chapter 07 (The Administrator)
Major Roles Building Translational Research (listen/read)
In this chapter, Dr. Mills begins sketching his approach to rebuilding the Department of Systems Biology. He discusses problems that departments have when they are built around “a cult of personality.” Next he talks about his work as Deputy Head of the Division of Research, tasked with building and improving translational research across the institution.
Next he talks about his work on the Clinical Cancer Genetics Program, which he took on just as work on BRCA-1 and -2 was emerging. (He notes that he helped write the Texas Genetic Confidentiality Bill.) He was asked to put together a vison for the future of research, which presaged his current role of assessing what is going on in cancer research to make strategic decisions about next directions.
Interview Identifier (listen/read)
Chapter 08 (Building the Institution)
Department Names Reflect Shifts in an Institution and in Cancer (listen/read)
In this chapter, Dr. Mill’s discusses the organization of departments and connects the naming of departments to shifts in cancer medicine. He begins by explaining that Dr. Robert Bast recruited him to MD Anderson by asking the question, Would you like to build the preeminent ovarian cancer center in the world? Permission was secured from the Regents in 1994/1995 to create the Department of Molecular Oncology: Dr. Mills explains why this name was selected then talks about why the name was changed to Molecular Therapeutics after Dr. Mien Chie Hung [oral history interview] was recruited.
Next, Dr. Mills explains why so many department names include the word “molecular” and discusses why the molecular focus was tied to a “great convergence” of technological advances and exploration of DNA and RNA.
Next he reflects on how departments strive to achieve flexibility in a context where academic institutions have rigid boundaries. He notes that, because MD Anderson does not have undergraduate programs, there are great opportunities for faculty flexibility.
Chapter 09 (Building the Institution)
The World’s First Cancer-Directed Department of Systems Biology Emerges from a Shift in Approach to Cancer (listen/read)
Dr. Mills begins this chapter by explaining that as cancer research evolved in the nineties, it became clear that the usual “reductionist” approach to studying molecules was insufficient and he and others decided to found what turned out to be the world’s first cancer-directed Department of Cancer Systems Biology.
Dr. Mills explains the shifted mindset reflected in this department and its research.
Chapter 10 (Building the Institution)
A Controversial Department Evolves: On Recruitment, Flexibility, and the Value of Failure (listen/read)
Dr. Mills first lists the faculty he recruited to develop a breadth of perspectives in the Department of Systems Biology. Next, he sketches the research “precept” at work in the Department: when a researcher builds a model, its failure to work can be as revealing as a model that does work. He gives an example of a model built for the pi3 kinase pathway.
Dr. Mills then follows up with an anecdote about the most challenging lecture he ever had to give: a lecture on the theme of failure at Rice University in which he stressed, If we do not fail, we are not doing work that is high-risk. He talks about the conservatism of current funding agencies.
He then talks about how founding a Department of Systems Biology was risky and controversial, but notes that over the past ten years acceptance has grown and that the Department’s approaches are well accepted now, with many collaborative relationships outside the department. He talks about his own role as a representative of the Department.
Chapter 11 (Overview)
The Cancer Genome Atlas and the Positive Side of Serving as Department Chair (listen/read)
Chapter 12 (Building the Institution)
The Kleberg Center for Molecular Markers (listen/read)
Dr. Mills begins this chapter on the creation of the Kleberg Institute for Molecular Markers by commenting that, as an administrator, he has been repeatedly asked to develop an area and then step away. His ability in this area gave MD Anderson leadership confidence in him and he was asked to develop a proposal for the Kleberg Foundation for a Kleberg Center for Molecular Markers. He talks about the sources of funding at MD Anderson, noting that the Kleberg Foundation’s philanthropy funded the Kleberg Center (which was the basis for the Institute for Personalized Cancer Therapy).
He describes a major Center initiative of characterizing ten thousand tumors (information that fed the Cancer Genome Atlas), now expanded to include 20 thousand patients. He describes the technology used for this project, developed from an idea he encountered in a lecture. He notes, We have incredible power to leverage what we are doing.
Next, Dr. Mills talks about how the focus of the Kleberg Center has shifted slightly after the founding of the Institute for Personalized Cancer Therapy, concentrating on discovery and on rare cancers, such as mall cell ovarian cancer.
Next, Dr. Mills talks about the intellectual context for this new focus and describes the knowledge that can be generated from the study of rare cancers, giving examples of studies that have led to clinical trials of new drugs. He talks about using models to rationally select drug combinations.
Chapter 13 (Building the Institution)
The Zayed Institute for Personalized Cancer Therapy, Part I (listen/read)
In this chapter, Dr. Mills begins the story of his role in managing the The Zayed Institute for Personalized Cancer Therapy in 2006/2007. He notes that he was first asked to manage the Institute with pilot funding. He talks about the first efforts to hire an Institute director leading to the decision that he and John Mendelsohn would serve as co-directors.
Next, he talks about developing a plan for the Institute’s growth, relying on significant philanthropic support.
[the recorder is paused]
Chapter 14 (Overview)
On Leadership, Leading, and Dealing with Kids (listen/read)
Dr. Mills begins this chapter by telling the story of a pot he has on his office bookshelf that carries the title, “Ashes of Problem Employees.” He says that a senior administrator needs to inspire a little fear in order to lead effectively, telling the story of serving in the Endowed Positions Committee to demonstrate.
Next he comments on the fact that he deals well with children because of his ob-gyn training and talk about dealing with manipulative children and what this teaches for dealing with adults.
Chapter 15 (Building the Institution)
The Zayed Institute for Personalized Cancer Therapy, Part II (listen/read)
Dr. Mills returns to the story of the Zayed Institute in this chapter. He begins by talking about the new Zayed Building, designed to facilitate collaborations.
Next he talks about the Institute’s role to promote personalized medicine. One arena of promotion involves supporting the next generation of physician-scientists with this translational mindset. He then turns to another facet of this role: provide mechanisms to deal with the “big data” emerging from Systems Biology research and leveraging this into clinical applications. He discusses a project run by Funde Merick-Berstam, the PODS Program [Precision Oncology Decision Support], which is a web based support system for clinicians that Systems Biology and the Zayed Institute run over the last two years.
Interview Identifier (listen/read)
Chapter 16 (Overview)
Creating Support for Team Science: The Challenges and Possible Solutions (listen/read)
In this chapter, Dr. Mills first observes that one of his major contributions to MD Anderson and to the field has been to facilitate the research of other people.
He then shifts to a discussion of the issues arising from the increasing focus on and need for team science strategies to adequately leverage the potential of current science and technology. In particular, he notes the challenge of adequately acknowledging the contributions of multiple researchers when the reward system is designed for individual investigators. He also mentions the challenge of building a career in a team science context and notes that the current model of the physician-scientist is not sustainable, nor is the current model for training individual investigators.
Next, Dr. Mills sketches the sources of resistance to changing the research culture to one more supportive of team science. He tells an anecdote to demonstrate how culture works in favor of individual investigators and he notes some personality qualities that team scientists share.
Chapter 17 (Overview)
The Challenges of Big Data; Developing “Clinical Trial Grade” Data to Foster Data Use (listen/read)
Story Topics Covered
In this chapter, Dr. Mills talks about some of the practical and intellectual challenges that big data poses for research.
He begins by explaining that it is a big challenge to create mechanisms and funding to simply sharing massive quantities of data (most generated from patient samples). He notes the costs of not sharing data. Dr. Mills states that this amount of information “has unbelievable promise,” but it has to be linked to new strategies of collecting data in clinical trials and shared in “curated” formats in order to be meaningful. He defines the concept of “clinical trial grade” to define trials specifically designed to leverage their data. Dr. Mills also talks about the energy wasted in repeating work, giving the example of research studies that require documentation of cell lines whose pedigree is already proven. He talks about the idea of “curating” data
Next, Dr. Mills gives specific examples of strategies for data collection and use. He talks about his own research group’s activities developing their own cell lines with a known pedigree. He then talks about the institution-wide effort to sequence patient tumors and discusses what is involved in putting this information into a usable format, noting that MD Anderson currently has a program in place to accomplish this.
Next he discusses why the patient information currently held at MD Anderson is not at clinical trial grade (noting that this has nothing to do with quality of care, but only with techniques of data collection). He explains that Google wants to create its own hospital to guarantee the strictest quality of data collection.
Chapter 18 (Overview)
Educating, Hiring and Retaining Team Scientists: A Challenging Time (listen/read)
In this chapter, Dr. Mills continues his discussion of how a team scientist must be trained differently from the traditional individual researcher. He lists some challenges to creating a culture of team science. He also explains that currently there are more molecular biologists for the number of positions available, a situation that has evolved over the past five years. In addition, financial challenges have gotten in the way of fostering a strong team science culture. He tells some anecdotes that demonstrate the situation.
Chapter 19 (Overview)
About the Moon Shots: Philosophy, Timelines, and Challenges (listen/read)
In this chapter, Dr. Mills sketches Dr. Ronald DePinho’s Moon Shots program. He explains that he embraces the philosophy of identifying where the obstacle to improving an outcome lies and then devoting resources to address that specific problem point. He develops the analogy between John F. Kennedy’s Moon Shot program and Ronald DePinho’s. He explains program implementation challenges, such as the fact that when one builds a new facility, “nothing happens for four to five years.” He explains how this natural timeline created some problems, since the technological platforms were not completely ready when the research teams needed them.
Chapter 20 (The Researcher)
The “Unholy Triad Moon Shot” and the Women’s Cancer Moon Shots (listen/read)
Dr. Mills begins this chapter by explaining the intellectual foundation for the “Unholy Triad Moon Shot” he currently heads. This discussion also provides a snapshot of the organic process by which a new research area takes shape.
First he lists the three “untarget-able mutations” included in the “unholy triad” --p53, Ras oncogene, and amplification of Myc. He explains that the executive leadership suggested combining the examination of all three of these mutations in a single Moon Shot. (He notes that the investigation of them will have relevance for all the Moon Shots.)
Next, Dr. Mills talks about the organization and aims of the Ovarian Cancer and Breast Moon Shots, originally included in one single, Women’s Cancer Moon Shot. He tells the story of the evolution of these Moon Shots that address cancers in which inherited abnormalities of BRCA 1 and 2 play significant roles. He explains the process by which the diseases were separated into distinct initiatives.
Dr. Mills next talks about how the approach taken in these Moon Shots has intrigued many observers. He gives the example of Astra Zeneca, a company which has agreed to supply drugs and funds for clinical trials in order to study how the drugs work. He sketches the importance of this kind of partnership and mentions that another company stepped forward to supply technology.
Chapter 21 (Overview)
The Moon Shots at a National Level (listen/read)
In this chapter, Dr. Mills discusses the national Moon Shots initiative organized by Joe Biden in (starting May 2015) under instructions from President Barack Obama. He explains the pilot study conducted, notes the bi-partisan support shown for the initiative to date, and explains MD Anderson’s interest in taking part.