St. Jude’s $11.5B, six-year plan aims to improve global outcomes for children with cancer and catastrophic diseases

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James R. Downing, MD

President and CEO,
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital; Director, Molecular Pathology Laboratory; Donald Pinkel Chair of Childhood Cancer Treatment

Charles W. M. Roberts

Executive vice president, Director, Comprehensive Cancer Center; Director, Molecular Oncology Division, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital

Small dreams have no power to move hearts, and in a new six-year strategic plan, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is thinking very big.

What would it take to drastically increase cure rates for childhood cancer worldwide?

St. Jude’s answer: $11.5 billion and an additional 1,400 jobs.

To get a rough sense of scale, work it out with a pencil:

Spread over six years—at $1.916 billion each year—it’s just under a third of the NCI’s annual spend, fourfold this year’s projected revenues of the American Cancer Society, and more than seventyfold the budget of the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer.

“It’s a broad and ambitious plan that will allow the institution to grow at an almost 8% compound annual growth rate,” James Downing, president and CEO of St. Jude, said to The Cancer Letter

“At a global level, we also want to see identifiable increases in cure rates. We are watching those very carefully. Our goal is to move toward cure rates of 60% for diseases like acute lymphoblastic leukemia, Hodgkin’s lymphoma and Wilms tumor,” Downing said. “As we look at a global population, survival rates hover around 20%, and we’d like to see those go up year by year. 

“A lot of our efforts are based on implementation science, looking at what works and what doesn’t work. Workforce, drug distribution and true advancements in cure rates are what we’re seeking over the next six years.”

The plan, rolled out on April 27, calls for an acceleration of research and treatment globally—not just for pediatric cancer, but also other illnesses, including blood disorders, neurological diseases, and infectious diseases.

Not surprisingly, this amount represents the largest investment the Memphis, Tenn. hospital has made in its nearly 60-year history. The previous strategic plan, the largest expansion in the institution’s history, resulted in $7 billion in investments (The Cancer Letter, May 19, 2017).

The multi-phase expansion plan is funded almost entirely by steadily increasing donor contributions generated by ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude.

It is an ambitious plan. But we’re going to have lots of new personnel, new investments, new technology and new partnerships. We have formal partnerships with many U.N. associate agencies and organizations around the world.

James Downing

Within the past six years, St. Jude has advanced fundamental, clinical, and translational research, Downing said.

“Two years ago, we began strategically looking at the most pressing issues in the field of pediatric cancer,” Downing said. “As we developed the strategic plan over those two years, there were many ideas we critically assessed, and we often said, ‘It’s not really best for St. Jude to pursue that.’ 

“In the end, we aligned on goals that collectively bring the prospect of remarkable benefits to the field of childhood cancer, and to children with cancer everywhere.”

On campus, St. Jude accepted nearly 20% more new cancer patients; increased faculty by 30% and staff by 23%; and embarked on several large-scale construction projects.

The new strategic plan focuses on five areas: fundamental science, childhood cancer, pediatric catastrophic diseases, global impact, and workforce and workplace culture.

“We’re coming out of a six-year strategic plan in which we increased our number of cancer patients by 20%, with 30% new faculty, 23% more staff, many large-scale construction projects,” said Charles Roberts, executive vice president of St. Jude and director of the hospital’s Comprehensive Cancer Center. “And we’re now going into a new strategic plan that is 60% larger than our prior plan.”

Under the plan, St. Jude will hire nearly 70 new faculty members, plus supporting laboratory staff, to work in basic, translational, and clinical research across 22 departments. 

These investigators will have the freedom to pursue the type of conceptually driven research that leads to tomorrow’s clinical advances.

“As we launch a strategic plan, we’ve identified the most exciting opportunities and challenges at that point in time,” Roberts said to The Cancer Letter. “However, we fully realize that we don’t know what’s coming next. New discoveries will be made, and new opportunities will emerge. Via the blue-sky process, we’ve set aside substantial funds every year to invest in the pursuit of emerging opportunities suggested by faculty and staff.  

“Part of what brought me here from Boston was the last strategic plan, and it’s so exciting to be a part of this. But just looking at the numbers, 1,400 new positions, average salary of $90,000. Six hundred and forty of those positions are in research, 266 are in clinical, 100 are in global pediatric medicine, and 394 in support. 

“Those are the kinds of numbers that you need to make these things real, and I think it’s exciting for St. Jude and for the field of cancer research, as we bring in all of these new folks.”

During the next six years, St. Jude will invest more than $250 million to expand technology and resources available to scientists and clinicians in their search to understand why pediatric catastrophic diseases arise, spread and resist treatments. These investments will include:

  • Creating a Cryo-Electron Tomography Center to determine the atomic structure of molecules in their native states within human cells,
  • Establishing a Center of Excellence in Advanced Microscopy to build the next generation of microscopes that explore cells in ways previously unimaginable,
  • Expanding data science staff and the digital infrastructure necessary to become a world leader in the application of data science to biological discovery in normal and disease states; and 
  • Creating a brighter future for children with cancer.

St. Jude will invest $3.7 billion during the next six years to expand cancer-focused research and related clinical care. These efforts will center on raising survival rates for the highest-risk cancers and for children with relapsed diseases, while simultaneously improving quality of life for pediatric cancer survivors. The investments will include:

  • Accelerating preclinical and clinical testing of new therapeutic agents so the most promising agents can rapidly move from clinical investigation to standard of care
  • Expanding large-scale, collaborative trials to reach more childhood cancer patients across the U.S. and around the world
  • Creating a new Translational Immunology and Immunotherapy Initiative (TI3)—an inter-departmental collaboration focused on expanding the use of cellular-based cancer immunotherapy as curative treatments for pediatric solid tumors and brain tumors
  • Finding cures and saving children everywhere

In the U.S., more than 80% of children diagnosed with cancer will be cured. In contrast, 80% of children with cancer live in limited-resource countries, where a mere 20% survive their disease. To address this, St. Jude will more than triple its investment in its international efforts coordinated through St. Jude Global and the St. Jude Global Alliance during the next six years. 

This represents an investment of more than $470 million. Global initiatives include:

  • Expanding educational programs to train the workforce needed to treat childhood cancer worldwide; strengthening the health care systems required to deliver that care; and bolstering regional and global programs to create the research infrastructure necessary to continually improve the quality of care in resource-limited settings,
  • Creating seven international operational hubs staffed by St. Jude workers to effectively manage the St. Jude Global Alliance, a network of more than 140 institutions across 50-plus countries; and
  • Developing a multimillion-dollar Pediatric Cancer Global Drug Access Program—in collaboration with WHO, other U.N. agencies and international organizations—to distribute an uninterrupted supply of anti-cancer drugs for childhood cancer treatment in low- and middle-income countries.

Under the plan, St. Jude will expand research and treatment programs to advance cures for childhood catastrophic diseases. The $1.1 billion, six-year investment includes work in nonmalignant hematological diseases, such as sickle cell disease; a new laboratory-based research program in infectious diseases that affect children worldwide; and a new research and clinical program to better understand and treat pediatric neurological diseases.

The plan outlines several strategies to encourage teamwork, and internal and external collaboration. These will include:

  • Expanding the St. Jude Research Collaboratives program from funding five to 11 teams of scientists worldwide through a more than $100 million investment,
  • Enriching future biomedical research pipelines for potential employees by creating experiences for high school and college students in science,
  • Expanding the established St. Jude blue-sky process, which solicits mission-related, game-changing ideas outside of the strategic plan, by $180 million,
  • Building and supporting best-in-class environments that help employees advance the institution’s life-saving work and offer patients and their families a home away from home; and
  • The $1.3 billion in new construction and renovations will include completion of The Domino’s Village, a family housing facility with one-, two- and three-bedroom units; Family Commons, a quality-of-life space with patient family services from school to tech support; and the Advanced Research Center—and construction of outpatient, clinical office and administrative buildings and parking garages.

It is estimated that 87% of funds to sustain and grow St. Jude over the next six years will come from public donations. 

Patients at St. Jude do not receive a bill for treatment, travel, housing or food—a model established by ALSAC and St. Jude founder Danny Thomas, who believed in equal access to medical care and driving research advances.

“There are an incredible number of donors across the United States who support St. Jude,” Downing said. “This carries a great responsibility for us to seek the maximum possible impact to improve outcomes for childhood cancer.”

Downing and Roberts spoke with Matthew Ong, associate editor of The Cancer Letter.

Matthew Ong: Congratulations on the official launch of St. Jude’s second six-year strategic plan. Could you briefly walk us through what’s in it?

James Downing: It is an exciting time for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. We’re finishing our prior six-year strategic plan, which started in Fiscal Year 2016. That $7 billion investment in the organization spanned fundamental science, clinical and translational research, clinical operations, and our global efforts. During the course of the plan, we increased faculty by 30% and staff by 23% and accelerated progress against pediatric catastrophic diseases.

About two years ago, we started discussing the next strategic plan. We looked critically at what we had accomplished under the previous plan, the expertise we had assembled, and the major problems in the field of pediatric catastrophic diseases, including cancer, infectious diseases, nonmalignant hematologic diseases and pediatric neurologic diseases. During that period, we involved more than 200 individuals across the institution to develop the new strategic plan.

This plan, at its core, focuses on accelerating progress against pediatric catastrophic diseases on a global scale. It outlines a $11.5 billion investment during the next six years, which includes the addition of 1,400 jobs and $1.9 billion in new capital investments, construction and renovations. It’s a broad and ambitious plan that will allow the institution to grow at an almost 8% compound annual growth rate.

The plan has 11 goals, divided among five major areas: fundamental science, pediatric cancer, other childhood catastrophic diseases, global impact, and a focus on people and place. In each of these areas, we’re recruiting new individuals, investing in new technology, and expanding collaborations across campus, across the United States, and globally.

I’ll start with fundamental science. In our last strategic plan, we invested heavily in increasing basic science programs on campus by expanding faculty numbers, technology and institutional data infrastructure—in the belief that expanding fundamental science leads to new knowledge that helps advance cures. This is investigator-initiated science, often not related to diseases, but rather to the fundamental questions of biology. 

In this new plan, we’re again investing heavily in expanding fundamental science at St. Jude. We’ve committed more than $1 billion to fundamental science. This includes increasing laboratory-based faculty by more than 33% during the next six years, and more than $250 million dedicated to investments in technology. 

Our goal is to make sure every dollar is spent wisely and effectively in pursuit of our mission—to advance cures and means of prevention for pediatric catastrophic diseases through research and treatment.

James Downing

The $250 million will fund multiple shared resources, department-based technology centers and new centers of excellence. Some of the faculty are being recruited to the centers of excellence, including those in data-driven discovery, innate immunity and inflammation, leukemia and advanced microscopy. These individuals will also have homes in academic departments.

On the technology front, we’re investing in shared resources. We’ll bring online some new ones, as well as some (Center for Modeling Pediatric Diseases and the Center for High-Content Screening) created at the end of the last strategic plan. The newest is focused on spatial transcriptomics. It will allow scientists across campus to look at the expression of genes in tissue context and at the single-cell level. 

A new effort in structural biology is to create a $20 million Cryo-Electron Tomography Center. This is the next level of cryo-electron microscopy, which allows the identification of the structure of molecules or molecular machines within the context of cells. It’s a developing technology that will feed other investments we’ve made in structural biology, such as the installation of one of the largest magnets in the world in our NMR facility, our Cryo-Electron Microscopy Center and single-cell analysis capabilities. The plan brings those tools to bear on defining normal biology and disease states.

Another effort is a Center of Excellence in Advanced Microscopy. Over the last six years, we’ve become one of the leading centers in the application of advanced microscopy to fundamental biology. This has been led by investigators in our Developmental Neurobiology, Cell and Molecular Biology, and Immunology departments. 

We’re positioned to build the next generation of microscopes to explore biology in ways never dreamed. With new faculty recruitments and collaborations with commercial companies and other institutions, we seek to develop the next generation of microscopes, and apply that to normal biology and to pediatric catastrophic diseases.

Another area we’re investing in heavily is data science. Over the last six years, and even before that, we expanded data sciences across campus. This initially started with the Pediatric Cancer Genome Project in 2010. Since then, we recruited many data scientists, and coalesced them into our Computational Biology, Biostatistics, and Epidemiology and Cancer Control departments, and into shared resources that provide bioinformatics support.

But over the last several years, we’ve seen the explosion of data, from structural biology to microscopy. 

As we look to the future and the capabilities we’ve amassed, we’re poised to significantly increase our investment in data science and become a leading institution in the application of data science to biologic discovery. This is a $40 million investment with 30 full-time employees. 

We have a task force led by faculty members to develop the roadmap for how we’re going to move forward. As data is accumulated and we look across those disparate data types, we can gain knowledge through true data science—exploring that data and advancing our understanding of biology.

The last area in fundamental research is our graduate school. During the last strategic plan, we developed the St. Jude Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, which offers a PhD and two master’s programs. 

We’re going to expand that over the coming six years by increasing the number of students in the Biomedical Sciences PhD, the Master of Science in Global Child Health and the Master of Science in Clinical Investigations programs. We will also create a new master’s program in data science. That will bring a new population of students to campus, which will further enhance our scientific enterprise.

Pediatric cancer is our next area of focus. This has always been our institution’s major focus. This area encompasses $3.7 billion of the operating dollars we will spend over the next six years. Although we’ve invested heavily in this effort in the past, we’re going to expand it significantly. 

We’re going to focus on pediatric cancers where the least progress has been made—cancers that are incurable and relapsed disease—and gain insights into how we can change the outlook for those cancers.

The first area of investment is new faculty—10 laboratory-based individuals who will expand our research efforts in understanding the biology of cancer. Some of those faculty will go into the Center of Excellence in Leukemia, but others will focus on solid tumors, brain tumors, or on biologic aspects that cut across cancer types.

Our second area for expansion will focus on assessing new therapeutic approaches for the highest-risk cancers. We need to access and evaluate more new therapies in a rigorous manner to identify those which should be moved forward into frontline clinical trials. Pediatric cancer encompasses many different types of cancer. 

To run clinical trials, you need a sufficient number of patients to be able to answer questions in a reasonable time frame. We need a way to identify the best new agents to move into clinical trials.

Our investment in preclinical testing will help us set up that infrastructure. Much of it was established in the last strategic plan, but it must be expanded so that we have the best pediatric cancer models and can assess single and combination therapies to see which are worth moving forward into clinical trials.

On the clinical trial front, we want to expand our infrastructure to run those clinical trials—not only on our campus, but in collaborations across the United States and around the globe. To make progress in some of these high-risk pediatric cancers, we need many patients. For many of the high-risk cancers, there are not a sufficient number of patients in the United States to conduct the trials. We, therefore, need to set up global collaborative networks that can address these high-risk cancers. 

So, we’re investing in our ability to access drugs through commercial sources, to rigorously assess these in preclinical models and to establish the global infrastructure to run these clinical trials with an associated translational science infrastructure second to none. 

Our third emphasis under the cancer focus is cancer immunotherapy. We began our work in cancer immunotherapy decades ago. We developed the chimeric antigen receptor, or CAR, against CD-19. That is the basis for the FDA-approved therapy that is being used right now on a variety of different fronts. Over the last several years, we’ve also invested heavily in expanding our cancer immunotherapy efforts, primarily focused on CAR-modified T cells. 

As part of this new strategic plan, we are creating a new program, the Translational Immunology and Immunotherapy Initiative. It will facilitate cross-departmental efforts focused on cancer immunotherapy and will explore the fundamental biology of chimeric antigen receptor approaches to cancer immunotherapy. 

What makes an ideal antigen that can be attacked by a chimeric antigen receptor? How does one manipulate CAR T cells so that they undergo exhaustion and stop killing the tumor? How do we change that? And what are the features of the microenvironment that decrease the killing potency of CAR T cells? These will require significant investments, including additional faculty.

Another emphasis will be looking at long-term toxicities of the therapies we use to treat children with cancer. As we cure more and more pediatric cancers, we must continually look at the toxicities from therapy and figure out how to reduce those without sacrificing the ability to be cured. Part of that is precision medicine, and so we are continuing to invest in our genomic and pharmacogenomic efforts and our proton therapy center. 

Part of reducing toxicities comes from learning from long-term survivors. So, we will continue to invest in St. Jude LIFE, our long-term, follow-up study. We will expand that to some of the newer pediatric cancer therapies, including immunotherapy and targeted agents. We will assess long-term complications from these therapeutic approaches and try to define which patients will be susceptible to these toxicities. 

I have to mention the obvious: $11.5 billion is quite the budget. Your new strategic plan is work that, one could argue, might be on par or exceeds the coordination and budget required to realize multiple projects, say, at the World Health Organization or even at some U.S. federal agencies. What did it take for you and your team at St. Jude to get to this point?

JD: There are an incredible number of donors across the United States who support St. Jude. Our goal is to make sure every dollar is spent wisely and effectively in pursuit of our mission—to advance cures and means of prevention for pediatric catastrophic diseases through research and treatment. This carries a great responsibility for us to seek the maximum possible impact to improve outcomes for childhood cancer.

We have the ideal team at St. Jude to execute this. Our leadership meets multiple times each week. Two years ago, we began strategically looking at the most pressing issues in the field of pediatric cancer.  We discussed which areas represented the greatest opportunities for St. Jude to contribute. We talked to many experts inside and outside of the institution—around the globe—and made hard decisions as we went forward. 

Strategic planning is deeply engrained at St. Jude as a rigorous process that is part of our scientific culture. We knew it was going to take two years to develop this plan. We don’t hire consultants; we do it all ourselves. Faculty across the institution participated in the development of priorities and goals for this strategic plan via structured meetings.  

As we developed the strategic plan over those two years, there were many ideas we critically assessed, and we often said, “It’s not really best for St. Jude to pursue that.”  In the end, we aligned on goals that collectively bring the prospect of remarkable benefits to the field of childhood cancer, and to children with cancer everywhere.

Every child who comes on this campus is part of our mission. We provide them with the best care possible. We do that in the context of research studies, so that we’re learning from every single patient. That means we’re not only helping children today; we’re also advancing cures for children tomorrow. 

We’ve rolled out the new strategic plan across campus during the last month, and the excitement is palpable. Our commitment continues long after the strategic plan’s launch. 

We have routine strategic planning retreats, where we assess the goals for the year, evaluate progress against the prior year’s goals, perform talent assessments and proactively seek out emerging opportunities. Every employee on campus will develop yearly goals that cascade down from the goals of this plan.

As we develop this roadmap, we know there are going to be new ideas. Charlie can tell you about a process incorporated into the strategic plan that allows us to not only move forward on this roadmap, but also add initiatives as new ideas emerge.

Charles Roberts: It’s a process we began with the last strategic plan, called our blue-sky process. As we launch a strategic plan, we’ve identified the most exciting opportunities and challenges at that point in time. 

However, we fully realize that we don’t know what’s coming next. New discoveries will be made, and new opportunities will emerge. Via the blue-sky process, we’ve set aside substantial funds every year to invest in the pursuit of emerging opportunities suggested by faculty and staff.  

Ideas that have emerged from the blue-sky process have been phenomenal. Our engagement with World Health Organization (WHO)—a collaboration to raise childhood cancer survival rates internationally—is one example. 

The Center for Modeling Pediatric Diseases is another example. This center makes iPS cells that come from patients so that we can investigate mechanisms that underlie cancer predisposition. 

In another blue-sky project, we’re looking at DNA methylation to characterize pediatric solid tumors with the goal of identifying new therapeutic opportunities. Some of our immunotherapy initiatives also came out of the blue-sky process. We’re looking forward to growing our blue-sky endeavors as we go forward.

We’re coming out of a six-year strategic plan in which we increased our number of cancer patients by 20%, with 30% new faculty, 23% more staff, many large-scale construction projects. And we’re now going into a new strategic plan that is 60% larger than our prior plan.

Charles Roberts

The other central part of our strategic planning process focuses on the importance of collaboration. We have systematically incorporated a focus upon collaboration into our entire strategic planning and execution process. Our strategic planning efforts began by bringing together the intellectual resources of faculty and staff at St. Jude. This yielded projects that have interactions between many investigators on campus. 

We recognize, however, that we’re still a relatively small institution, and there’s a lot of expertise outside. We asked: “How can we engage top scientists to tackle problems related to cancer and other catastrophic illnesses of childhood?”

In pursuit of this, during our last strategic plan, we created the St. Jude Research Collaboratives, in which we fund investigators from multiple institutions who collaborate with investigators at St. Jude. 

Initially, we were planning to fund two or three Collaboratives. However, they were remarkably successful, and top scientists eagerly joined. 

Consequently, we’ve grown the program to five St. Jude Research Collaboratives already. These teams are each funded at an average of $8 million over 5 years, so each investigator is getting R01-level funding, or a little bit better. This has been a phenomenal success.

In the new strategic plan, we’re going to grow the program to a steady state of 11 funded collaboratives, representing close to a $90 million investment. So far, three of the Collaboratives are directly focused on childhood cancer. A fourth is a basic science-focused project relevant to childhood cancer. We’re excited about the growth of this collaboration-focused program.

Lastly, I’d like to address global collaboration. If you look across the globe, in low- and middle-income countries, the cure rates for childhood cancer are less than 20%. 

This is a problem we know we can solve. We’ve proven in the United States we can drive the cure rate to 80%. How can we help the rest of the world? 

Because of the resources brought to us by our donors, we are able to think about these things, and so we’re now collaborating around the globe to drive cure rates forward for childhood cancer worldwide.  

JD: As an example of new ideas and how rapidly we can act on them, I’d like to tell you about a new blue-sky proposal that came up at the end of the last strategic plan. This idea was precipitated at a faculty retreat. One of our senior investigators was presenting, and during a coffee break, someone said, “Well, what if you did this?” That emerged into a blue-sky proposal, “Seeing the Invisible in Protein Kinases.” This was work from Dr. Babis Kalodimos, our Structural Biology department chair. He had a Science paper that came out several months ago, where he used the high-field NMR spectroscopy to look at the structure of the ABL kinase. He was able to identify transient conformational states that help to explain how resistant mutants work.

This gave us new insights into transient states that exist in molecules that can only be seen under high-field NMR, not with other structural biology approaches. 

Based on that, we started thinking, “Well, what if you did this on all kinases? What if you just did it against tyrosine kinases, serine kinases, receptor tyrosine kinases? What new rules would emerge from this? What would it tell us about families of kinases? What would it tell us about mechanisms of inhibition to kinase inhibitors? What might it tell us about new approaches to developing drugs against protein tyrosine kinases?” 

And since kinases are a major focus for targeted therapy, there was great excitement about pursuing these studies. Dr. Kalodimos developed the proposal and brought it forward; however, it was clear that this effort would be beyond the scope of our blue-sky process. 

Blue-sky initiatives are usually somewhere in the $1–2 million range, and this was north of $30 million. Yet, in the end after thorough internal and external reviews, the project will move forward as part of the new strategic plan..

This is an approach that will give us fundamental knowledge and can have a profound impact on our understanding of a major class of targets for next-generation therapy. 

If I recall accurately, St. Jude has a network of partnerships with a few dozen countries worldwide. Does this plan call for an expansion of efforts within each of those countries? And how many of them?

JD: When I took over in 2014, we had what we called the International Outreach Program, which was 24 programs in 17 countries. During the program’s 25-year history, we had made great progress. We were making significant impact and changing the outlook for children with cancer in those 17 countries. But we were affecting only about 3% of children with cancer across the globe, and the International Outreach Program was not scalable. 

So, at the beginning of the last strategic plan, we recruited Dr. Carlos Rodriguez-Galindo. He developed a vision that after assessing, we decided to move forward on. This new effort encompasses the Department of Pediatric Global Medicine, St. Jude Global and the St. Jude Global Alliance.

These are all integrated. We developed a model that we think is scalable around the world, and we think this model ultimately can affect children with cancer everywhere. 

The idea is that first we must train a workforce to treat children with cancer around the globe. We can’t train the workforce ourselves, but we can train the trainers, who will then train the workforce. 

We need to help build health care capacity across the globe for pediatric cancer care. We can only do that within countries and across regions where countries will work together to develop centers of excellence for the different types of therapies that are needed for pediatric cancer. St. Jude’s global efforts will facilitate the development of this capacity. 

We also need to educate the workforce on how to perform clinical research. In low- and middle-income countries, they can only deliver a level of care that’s commensurate with the infrastructure they have. They can’t take what we do in the United States and deliver it today, but instead must implement resource-adapted approaches to treatment. 

Over time, however, they will be able to enhance their infrastructure and thus their capacity to deliver care. This takes carefully developed clinical protocols that will allow them to assess the approach they are using today and how to improve this in a stepwise manner as their infrastructure improves. 

As part of this plan, we formed collaborations with WHO. They designated us as the first Collaborating Centre for Childhood Cancer. In a second initiative, we invested $15 million in WHO for them to hire individuals—in Geneva, at their regional headquarters and in regions across the world—to help us ensure that all relevant parties are brough to the table as we move toward improving health care capacities around the world. This includes physicians, hospital administrators and government officials, such as ministers of health, education and finance.

The goal of that collaboration was to improve cure rates from 20% to 60% for six of the most common pediatric cancers, over the next decade. It’s a great program. 

We have the ideal team at St. Jude to execute this. We aligned on goals that collectively bring the prospect of remarkable benefits to the field of childhood cancer, and to children with cancer everywhere.

James Downing

Today, our overall efforts involve 140 institutions across 50 countries and constitute the St. Jude Global Alliance. We have activities organized into seven regions: Mexico, South and Central America, Eurasia, Eastern Mediterranean, Asia-Pacific, and Sub-Saharan Africa. In each of those areas, we have a different number of participating countries and institutions. 

We have over 200 ongoing studies around the world that are designed to advance cures for children. Over the next six years, we’re going to take our budget, which is about $30 million a year for this program, and increase it to $100 million a year. 

That’s a massive increase, and it may expand even further. As part of this expansion, we will be creating St. Jude operational hubs around the world in our seven regions. These will be staffed by teams of St. Jude workers who will be able to facilitate interactions with the workforce on the ground, and coordinate interactions and develop relationships with the governments and other NGOs.

A major effort, and one that I’m most excited by, involves WHO and other UN agencies. One of the obstacles to treating children with cancer around the globe is getting access to the drugs that are required to treat them. There is an inconsistent pipeline for those drugs. In some countries, over 40% of patients, at some point during their therapy, have an interruption of therapy because they can’t access the drugs required. That leads to higher relapse rates. In some countries, the drugs they do have are not effective.

There’s a worldwide patchwork quilt of how and where they get drugs. It can’t be solved at a regional level; it can’t be solved at a country level. It has to be solved at a global level. Can we create a new program—a childhood cancer drug distribution program—that’s modeled like the Global Fund, to take care of this? 

The program would contract with pharmaceutical companies for manufacturing of the required drugs and thereby establish a global market for pediatric cancer drugs that ensures a definable market size and payment for production; the program would then assess and guarantee the quality of the drugs purchased and manage all shipping and delivery to the end users. The drugs would be provided free to low- and middle-income countries and would be available to high-income countries at a cost. 

We’re investing a lot of money in developing the business plan for this. I was on a call last week with the director general of WHO. We hope to be presenting to our Board in September a formal business plan of what this would look like. This effort can change the landscape for pediatric cancer around the globe. It will require many people working together, and St. Jude is just playing a leadership role in bringing those people together. 

Our long-term role will be determined by the plan that’s laid out, and by where we feel we can contribute the most value. But this is a major effort that will change the outlook for pediatric cancer worldwide.

The second effort is diagnostics—laboratory and pathology diagnostics. You’ve got to have an accurate diagnosis to be able to effectively treat these children, and there’s an insufficient workforce to accomplish that in low- and middle-income countries. 

Part of our effort is to train that workforce, but it will take decades to train that workforce. In the meantime, is there an approach to augmenting diagnostics through telemedicine, telepathology and central reference laboratories? 

There are dollars in the plan to develop pilot projects to see if that can be implemented, and what the value would be on a global scale. We don’t know what the value will be; we don’t know how it would actually work, but we’re developing it. 

There are ongoing pilot projects to explore how we can develop that infrastructure to provide the diagnoses that are needed to accurately identify the cancer, and risk-stratify patients so that they can be appropriately treated, even on resource-adapted protocols.

It is an ambitious plan. But we’re going to have lots of new personnel, new investments, new technology and new partnerships. We have formal partnerships with many U.N. associate agencies and organizations around the world.

You just answered my questions on drug access and human capital. In many of these resource-limited countries, and some with, obviously, very different healthcare systems than that of the United States, have you found it easier or more difficult to navigate those healthcare models, and to ensure that your investments get to the children they are intended for and ensure accessibility?

JD: It varies by country. Countries and regions need to be evaluated very rigorously, including evaluating health care systems and infrastructure capabilities. We start with workshops within countries, led by St. Jude and WHO. 

We assemble caregivers, hospital administrators, other NGOs, and government representation, including the Minister of Health, the Minister of Finance and the Minister of Education. We do detailed analysis on the current governmental health policy and look at what’s there and what’s not there. Over a several-day period, we chart out what is needed to move forward. 

There are some countries where, at this point, palliative care is the most essential service. For others, it’s focusing on low-risk therapy that can be delivered, identifying those patients and training a workforce. 

We’re learning country by country. Then we bring those individuals from those countries together through regional meetings. The St. Jude Global Alliance also brings them together from around the globe at an annual meeting where they learn from each other.

Efforts are largely focused on pediatric cancer, but also on nonmalignant hematological diseases and infectious disease control. The latter includes implementing simple things to improve infection control within the hospitals. Some of our efforts are focused on improving care within the ICU setting. We have implemented early warning systems in a large network of studies across multiple different cultures. 

On the St. Jude campus, we host a virtual onco-intensive care workshop every year that brings together intensivists around the globe, who are working with pediatric cancer patients.

Also, with such a huge net, do you expect to rapidly diversify many of the clinical trials that St. Jude is currently conducting or is planning to launch? I ask this because I would imagine that a very broad initiative like this would give you access to many disparate populations that otherwise wouldn’t be within reach of most investigators.

JD: I think that’s absolutely true. There are different levels of clinical trials. In many of the low- and middle-income countries, the need is for resource-adapted trials aimed at advancing care. 

But there are also fabulous centers across the world delivering frontline pediatric oncology care, and we can collaborate with them on frontline studies to accelerate progress on high-risk cancers. 

One example is our effort in China. We started with Shanghai Children’s Medical Center, a sophisticated center in a sophisticated city. We worked with them to teach them how we treat pediatric cancer. We built that into a network of 20 institutions across the country, and now they are organized into the China Childhood Cancer Group. 

They’re running trials that we helped design and serve as consultants on, and through these efforts, we are able to answer frontline questions—such as which kinase inhibitor is more effective against BCR-ABL positive acute lymphoblastic leukemia. We’ve also worked with them on genotyping and incorporating those tests into clinical trials.

The challenge moving forward is high-risk cancers. Can we really assemble groups across the world, from China to the Middle East, to Russia, Australia, Canada, South America, etc.—where there are centers with the capacity to run frontline trials? 

Can we assemble and acquire that data to accelerate answers to the most important questions in shorter and shorter time frames? It’s a challenge. There are many obstacles in the way, but we’re working to accomplish that over the next six years.

And of all of these phases in the six-year plan, which do you expect to be the heaviest lift?

JD: The heaviest lift is recruiting the right people. That’s everything. We’re going to be recruiting 70 new faculty—more than 10 positions during each of the next six years. Every faculty recruited has our commitment—to them, their career and their research. So, it’s finding the right people. It’s making sure they fit into our culture, and they have the right approach to science, medicine and the institution’s mission, and then it’s convincing them to join us.

Usually, people get to campus, and they’re swept away by what they see. We’re opening a new $412 million, 600,000-square-foot research building. The first faculty member moved into it this month. It will be fully occupied by the end of the summer. It’s a long, arduous process to move faculty and equipment into that building, but it will offer an ideal atmosphere for collaboration and fundamental science.

Several of our departments will be moving into there. That gives us space in the other buildings to recruit new individuals. And as part of this plan, we have $1.9 billion in capital—and $1.3 billion of that is new construction or renovations. We’re building a new housing facility right now and are looking at a new outpatient building, clinical office building, science and administrative office building, and cafeteria.

These are major investments to create an environment around a culture of collaboration and a culture of developing new knowledge to advance cures. 

We’re providing the facilities that allow everyone on campus to interact—no matter their focus or whether they’re on the clinical services or in translational science or fundamental science, or in support. Every person at St. Jude is critical for us to achieve our mission.

I remember when St. Jude committed the initial $100 million in 2018 through St. Jude Global to improve childhood cancer survival rates worldwide. Where it pertains to childhood cancer, what are some of the high priority milestones or goals—and you’ve talked about this a little bit—that six years from now you’d like to be able to say, “We got that done?”

JD: One is the drug access program when it’s actually up, running and contributing in a major way. Second is training a workforce: training new pediatric hematologists through our worldwide programs; graduating students from our Master of Science in Global Child Health program and then funding them for two years to pursue capstone projects back in their home country. 

Through these efforts, we would like to see over 100 new highly trained pediatric oncology leaders working as part of the St. Jude Global Alliance and improving care throughout the world. 

At a global level, we also want to see identifiable increases in cure rates. We are watching those very carefully. Our goal is to move toward cure rates of 60% for diseases like acute lymphoblastic leukemia, Hodgkin’s lymphoma and Wilms tumor. 

As we look at a global population, survival rates hover around 20%, and we’d like to see those go up year by year. A lot of our efforts are based on implementation science, looking at what works and what doesn’t work. Workforce, drug distribution and true advancements in cure rates are what we’re seeking over the next six years.

Lastly, we want more collaborators across the Global Alliance. The field in general will learn so much through this Global Alliance and through the knowledge gained by approaches in treating low-risk patients in low-resource settings. We may see that therapy for low-risk cancer is every bit as good as what we’re giving, and we can back off on the therapy we’re giving in high-income countries. 

We’ll gain insights into toxicities based on different populations, and we’ll gain insights from the differences in culture and the way people approach these problems. That will impact all of us and change the way we practice medicine in the future.

Got it. I think we’ve covered some ground here. Did we miss anything?

CR: One thing I’ll add. Jim told you that the plan has $3.7 billion for cancer. That’s just how we describe the plan and how we’ve parsed it out, but our total investment in childhood cancer is substantially greater. 

The major focus of Global is childhood cancer, so those are additional dollars on top of the $3.7 billion. Much of what we do in basic science, in many cases, is cancer related. For example, the kinase Blue-Sky idea is entirely cancer focused. 

The data science, much of that’s going to be cancer-focused; imaging is also cancer-focused. And as we talk about workforce—again, a different pot of money—many of that workforce and the people who we’re developing and recruiting, are cancer focused.

And so, it’s really an incredible plan. We’re coming out of a six-year strategic plan in which we increased our number of cancer patients by 20%, with 30% new faculty, 23% more staff, many large-scale construction projects. And we’re now going into a new strategic plan that is 60% larger than our prior plan. 

When we consider that only 20% or less of kids are cured of cancer around the globe, that is an incredible challenge. It’s exciting to bring all of these endeavors to bear on childhood cancer, not just in the United States, but around the globe.

I’m genuinely amazed. This comes across as truly ambitious on, well, a St. Jude scale.

JD: We’re excited. We’re going to be recruiting lots of people and we always appreciate The Cancer Letter talking to us.

One last thing, Charlie just brought up 1,400 employees. We can tell you a breakdown on that because 1,400 is a significant increase in workforce. I think we’re somewhere at 5,500, and we’re going to end up at 7,000 over the next six years.

CR: Part of what brought me here from Boston was the last strategic plan, and it’s so exciting to be a part of this. But just looking at the numbers, 1,400 new positions, average salary of $90,000. Six hundred and forty of those positions are in research, 266 are in clinical, 100 are in global pediatric medicine, and 394 in support. Those are the kinds of numbers that you need to make these things real, and I think it’s exciting for St. Jude and for the field of cancer research, as we bring in all of these new folks.

Thanks for taking the time to do this deep dive.

JD and CR: Thank you.

Associate Editor
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