publication date: Jul. 8, 2016

Conversation with The Cancer Letter

Stanford Cancer Institute Earns NCI Comprehensive Center Designation


Stanford Cancer Institute earned the NCI Comprehensive Cancer Center designation, becoming the eighth institution in California to earn this highest level of recognition.

Nationwide, the number of comprehensive cancer centers now climbs to 47. Earlier this summer, the University of Maryland also received the comprehensive designation (The Cancer Letter, May 31).

“I think our strength is having depth of basic science that hasn’t yet been fully mobilized to apply to cancer,” said Beverly Mitchell, SCI director and the George E. Becker Professor of Medicine. “[SCI] has a broad, multidisciplinary group of really creative and innovative people; the word ‘innovation’ comes up a lot here. I think that’s probably a distinction.”

Mitchell, who became the SCI director in 2008, spoke with Paul Goldberg, editor and publisher of The Cancer Letter.


Paul Goldberg: The name Stanford comes with a certain level of prestige in all endeavors—science, healthcare, arts, humanities—why did this designation not happen, say, 25 years ago?

Beverly Mitchell: There’s an interesting history at Stanford. Years ago, Henry Kaplan wanted a cancer center, and the chairs of many departments thought that it wouldn’t be advantageous to necessarily have a separate group responsible for cancer.

It really was Dean Phil Pizzo, who came from the NCI, who had this vision and who made it happen. He recruited myself and Dr. Karl Blume, a bone marrow transplant expert and wonderful person and leader, who unfortunately died three years ago.

Dr. Blume started this process, then he and Dr. Pizzo recruited me from UNC.

PG: There was of course a consortium cancer center a few years ago. You’ve been director since 2008. How did you make this designation happen?

BM: It was really a matter of simply building on the existing talent—there was expertise in most areas, perhaps not as strong in population science.

So it was a matter of recruiting some key leaders in clinical research and population science, recruiting some other very skilled faculty and then catalyzing their interactions, which is pretty much what cancer centers are supposed to do.

But the talent here was remarkable to start with, so that was definitely an advantage.

PG: That’s certainly putting it in a nutshell. What was your war chest for making this happen?

BM: In the beginning, we frankly had some wonderful community support. Then three years ago, we had received a large gift from a group of anonymous donors that was intended to transform the care of cancer patients.

It has been applied to improving coordination of care and overall attention to how patients are treated in the clinic, as well as to translational research and how to improve patient outcomes.

PG: How much money was it?

BM: The total for both patient care and translational research was $125 million.

PG: And that’s over a fairly short period of time.

BM: Yes. Frankly, we started with not a very big war chest, but people in the community have been very supportive.

PG: Is there number—is it $125 million-plus?—to make the designation happen?

BM: We still have some of that, so I don’t really have a number. I would hesitate to attribute it all to dollars. Although it does help in some of the recruitments, obviously.

PG: Your clinical center has always been very busy and full of great docs, though I’ve been told by friends that it hasn’t really had a major PR machine, a bragging machine. And you have recruited some clinical stars—George Sledge, Doug Blayney, to name a couple. Am I missing anybody? Do you want to point to anyone who helped make this designation happen?

BM: Mark Pegram, another breast cancer and translational research who’s head of our clinical research programs now. And Robert Haile came from USC to lead our population science programs. I think those were two really important recruitments. I should mention another—I guess that recruitment happened after the comprehensive designation—but we’ve also recruited Crystal Mackall from the NCI who is a fantastic immunotherapy person.

PG: What’s the value of a comprehensive cancer designation to Stanford? Is it the value of the core grant or is it something that you need to stay competitive in this environment?

BM: I think we were feeling as if we should be among the comprehensive cancer centers in the state, which are quite a few. We we are on par with them.

It’s really helped us to achieve the stature we believe we deserve, in the state of California and nationally.

PG: How is Stanford different from other cancer centers nationwide or in California or Northern California?

BM: I think our strength is having depth of basic science that hasn’t yet been fully mobilized to apply to cancer. [SCI] has a broad, multidisciplinary group of really creative and innovative people; the word ‘innovation’ comes up a lot here. I think that’s probably a distinction.

PG: I think that segues to the next question; I’m going to generalize shamelessly, so just throw something at me. Stanford recruits and develops people who are smart and independent, and a friend of mine said that this is probably why it took so long to get a cancer center put together. How do you get these folks to understand the value of teamwork?

BM: Mobilizing people with really good ideas to meet and come together—we have the traditional seed grant programs where we give interactive groups some amount money to work together; that always helps.

But everybody here is very collaborative, it’s just that there had never been a structure in place to set and pursue priority research areas. It’s always been from the bottom up. Some of the resources have gone toward encouraging people to do more collaboration, but, truthfully, it’s a very collaborative environment. That part is not too difficult.

The rewards at the level of promotion at Stanford are still very much for individual achievement, but I think that’s changing a little bit.

PG: Is there anything we’ve missed? Anything you’d like to add?

BM: I’ve been here 10 years, so it’s been quite a journey. It’s a very exciting place and we’re pleased with the recent acknowledgement of that.

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