Earlier this year, Team Julia had the privilege of financially contributing to the Center for Cancer Innovation (CCI). With this contribution we had the honor of being their first outside donor. We’re very excited for the work of CCI and what it means for cancer research. We’re looking forward to an ongoing relationship of support as we target Team Julia research funds to the most promising research institutions.
To help give you a better picture of this ambitious new work Dr. C. Anthony Blau, the executive director of the CCI, graciously agreed to participate in an interview.
Dr. Tony Blau is Professor in the Department of Medicine/Hematology and Adjunct Professor in the Department of Genome Sciences at the University of Washington (UW). He serves as attending physician on the leukemia service for the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, a world-class cancer treatment center that unites doctors from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (FHCRC), UW Medicine and Seattle Children’s Hospital.
Dr. Blau co-directs the Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine at the UW and the Program for Stem and Progenitor Cell Biology at the UW/FHCRC Cancer Consortium. His research centers on exploiting the latest scientific discoveries for the benefit of patients. He is currently leading a UW based effort to revolutionize cancer research and treatment called the “Center for Cancer Innovation,” that is focusing initially on a form of breast cancer called triple negative breast cancer. The Center for Cancer Innovation currently has 60 members from across 10 organizations and includes basic scientists, computational biologists, and clinicians.
Dr. Blau has served on numerous advisory panels for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and recently completed a 2-year term as Chair of the Molecular and Cellular Hematology study section at NIH. He received his medical degree from Ohio State University and completed his residency in internal medicine at Duke University.
TEAM JULIA: What is the Center for Cancer Innovation and what makes it unique in the world of cancer research?
DR. BLAU: The Center for Cancer Innovation (CCI) is indeed unique in the world of cancer research. I will try to explain why by giving some context. CCI is centered around the concept of “doing our best.” I came to Seattle for my oncology fellowship in 1989 to learn bone marrow transplantation, a high stakes procedure in which patients with leukemia are given as much chemotherapy as they can tolerate, and then rescued with a donor’s bone marrow. In 1989 this epitomized what it meant to “do our best” for patients with cancer. After my clinical fellowship I spent about 5 years in the lab of George and Thalia Stamatoyannopoulos learning how to do research, and then began to lead my own research lab. As a scientist I’ve been tremendously impressed with how very rapidly science and technology are advancing. But as a physician and husband of a very busy breast cancer oncologist, I’ve been frustrated by how long it takes for these research advances to have a clinical impact. And that is why I co-founded (with Greg Foltz, a legendary neurosurgeon at Swedish Hospital who was lost to pancreatic cancer last week) a not-for-profit organization that was initially outside the University of Washington (UW) called Partners in Personal Oncology (PPO). Last summer UW Dean Paul Ramsey asked me to bring PPO into UW and PPO’s mission has now been taken up by CCI (CCI doesn’t yet have a website but PPO’s website can still be found at www.personaloncology.org).
CCI’s mission is to bring an unprecedented level of scientific rigor to bear in the characterization and treatment of individual cancer patients (“all for one”), while using their experiences to add to our collective understanding of how cancer works for the benefit of future patients (“one for all”). This requires that we get physicians and scientists with different skill sets and expertise to focus their collective efforts on the problems of an individual patient with cancer. This should eventually allow us to build a database that gives us a deep understanding of how cancers progress, metastasize, and escape treatment. HIV became a chronic disease only after we learned the rules by which the virus spreads, evolves, and escapes treatment. We want to build a similar type of rulebook for cancer. I believe that this is today’s definition of what it means to “do our best” for patients with cancer.
TEAM JULIA: With the University of Washington, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center all in Seattle, it seems as if the Pacific Northwest is in a position of real strength when it comes to cancer research. Where would you rank our region in terms of cancer research?
DR. BLAU: You are right that the Pacific Northwest has a number of really outstanding institutions, and I would probably currently rank the Fred Hutchinson/UW Cancer Consortium as one of the top 5 in the country. But we also have other amazing institutions in our area, including the Institute for Systems Biology, Sage Bionetworks, Swedish Hospital, OHSU and a number of private oncology practices. CCI is based on the premise that no single institution has the wherewithal to cure cancer, and tackling this problem requires bringing people together from across different organizations, i.e., transcending institutional boundaries. The Pacific Northwest has a culture of collaboration, and this is precisely the feature that makes CCI successful – bringing people together from across different disciplines and organizations to join in the grand mission of curing cancer, one patient at a time.
TEAM JULIA: When did you know you wanted a career in medicine? Why a cancer doctor?
DR. BLAU: I have known that I wanted to be a doctor since I was 6 years old, and a researcher probably since the age of 12, when I read a book called Milestones in Medicine. The book describes the amazing stories of heroic researchers like Madame Curie and Walter Reed. Over the course of my career my main interest has been to work on projects that have the potential to help sick people. I turned my interests to cancer about 4 years ago, once it seemed scientifically tractable using the approach that CCI is taking.
TEAM JULIA: An initial focus for CCI is a form of breast cancer called triple negative breast cancer. Why this type of cancer?
DR. BLAU: We are focusing on triple negative breast cancer because there are currently no good therapies and I think the state of the science makes it possible for us to have a significant impact on this disease using CCI’s approach.
TEAM JULIA: Cancer charities (e.g., Komen) and medical centers (e.g., MD Anderson and “Moon Shots”) talk a lot about a cure. Is talk of a cure realistic? What are some things to keep in mind as we talk about a cure?
DR. BLAU: Long-term control is probably a more realistic goal. Ideally we’ll follow a path very similar to that taken for HIV, where patients take pills regularly and can live essentially normal lives for decades.
TEAM JULIA: What are the chances of the Huskies winning the PAC 12 in football this year?
DR. BLAU: 100 percent.
TEAM JULIA: Can you tell us a bit about some of the researchers affiliated with CCI?
DR. BLAU: My wife’s partner, Frank Senecal, is the best known oncologist in Tacoma. On our meeting days he’ll see 40 patients, drive up to Seattle to arrive by 6pm, and drive back home exhausted when the meeting ends at 7:30. My wife Sibel, a breast cancer expert in Puyallup, has been a major and consistent force behind the development of CCI. Greg Foltz was a co-founder of Partners in Personal Oncology, the predecessor of CCI, and his remarkable story was captured in last week’s Seattle Times (see article here).
TEAM JULIA: What kind of funding do you see CCI needing to fulfill its promise? How will this money be allocated?
DR. BLAU: We are taking the first steps on a journey that will last for decades. The road ahead will be long and hard, and will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Our first trial is for 10 patients with triple negative breast cancer, and will cost $1.25 million. We have raised $402 thousand thus far (including funding from Team Julia), and including $250 thousand from the Washington Research Foundation that will be awarded only after we receive the remaining funds from other sources. We are working hard to bring together funds from many different sources to get our trial launched.
TEAM JULIA: What role do you see charities like Team Julia playing in the success of the Center for Cancer Innovation?
DR. BLAU: We believe that cancer patients will need to play a much more central role in cancer research than they have previously. Patient focused organizations such as Team Julia will provide an important resource for providing patient input as well as a means for providing community based funding for our efforts.
TEAM JULIA: When you’re not busy curing cancer, what are some things you enjoy doing?
DR. BLAU: Swimming, hiking, seeing/taking care of our kids (Benny – 25; Manya – 20, Elif – 18; Melisa – 8) and having friends over. I started working with a personal trainer a few weeks ago. But our family is pretty much all about cancer, 24/7.
We hope this interview helps you see why we’re so encouraged by the work of CCI and Dr. Blau’s leadership. You can help us help CCI with a donation to Team Julia. To learn how, please visit our donation page here.
Thank you for your partnership in this vital work!