Director's Message

Ted Lawrence, MD, PhD
Ted Lawrence, M.D., Ph.D., professor and chair of radiation oncology who was recently named director of the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center, discusses his vision and priorities as the center’s new leader, as well as his personal philosophies on patient care, philanthropy and the Michigan difference.

You began your career at Michigan 28 years ago. What are Michigan’s greatest strengths when it comes to cancer care?

The University of Michigan has created an unprecedented environment of collaboration across specialties and disciplines. I don't know of any other place that has a top medical school, school of public health, college of engineering, college of nursing, business school -- the list goes on. The cancer program can capitalize on the great strengths of all of these areas, allowing us to provide outstanding patient care that incorporates cutting-edge research and state-of-the-art education.

What are your top priorities for the U-M Cancer Center as its new leader?

First, we have a great strength in precision medicine. One aspect of precision medicine uses a patient's genetic information to diagnose or treat their disease, as opposed to a one-size-fits-all approach. For instance, the "lung cancer" of 20 years ago turns out to be several different diseases that require different treatments based on the particular gene mutation driving that cancer. In addition, we are discovering new targets for cancer therapy and developing new drugs to go after those targets. But precision medicine can be much broader than finding and targeting mutations. For example, we can make treatment more precise for the individual patient by starting therapy, assessing the response and changing the treatment mid-course based on the individual patient response even if we don't know the specific target. A key part of this work is to develop innovative imaging techniques to evaluate whether tumors are, in fact, responding to treatment.

Secondly, we do a lot of great clinical trials; however we'd like to intensify our recruitment to further deliver on our commitment to outstanding patient care.

Another area of strength that I’d like to see us continue to develop is building off the Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation. The IHPI uses data from health services research to evaluate how health care can be improved and to advise policy makers to implement change. We want to continue to build on the available data to shape better cancer care and influence reform at the policy level.

Finally, I'd also like to see us extend our presence in the state of Michigan by building relationships with other providers and systems across the state. We've already started to do that, however we want to create more of those partnerships to allow more patients in our state to receive the right cancer care in the right place.

What are some of the most exciting areas of cancer research going on at the U-M Cancer Center?

I have already mentioned some of our most exciting efforts in precision medicine. Part of this effort will involve the development of additional state- of- the- art imaging techniques using new forms of MRI, which lets us see not just the image but the underlying biology to really understand how to improve upon a patient's care.

Another exciting area for investment is called metabolomics. There's a lot of research now in cancer metabolism and how cancers process nutrients differently than normal cells. We're always looking for the differences between cancers and normal tissues because then we can target a treatment to specifically attack the cancer without harming healthy tissue.

Immunotherapy is also showing promise. There are some newly developed drugs that unleash the immune system against the cancer. A lot of the therapies that previously tried to harness the immune system have been defeated because the cancer produces substances that make them invisible to the immune system. Now, there are new drugs and antibodies available that essentially make the cancer visible to the immune system.

Why is it important to you to continue to see patients?

I love taking care of patients -- that is what got me into medicine in the first place. I think of cancer as a journey that our patients must take, and I want to make that journey go as smoothly as it can. We can achieve that by improving the processes by which we get patients into our clinics, treating them efficiently, compassionately and in timely way, and bringing them state-of-the-art clinical research. If you can offer a new approach to care as part of a clinical trial, for example, and that patient gets better care than he or she has ever received because of your research, that's the best thing in the world.

I had my own cancer diagnosis four years ago. There was only one place I considered going, and, of course, I had my care here. I bring that experience to my patients now. I feel like I know what they go through, and I'm very grateful for the care I received here. This is a fantastic place.

Can you discuss the importance of philanthropic partners?

The cutbacks in [National Institutes of Health] funding have been so difficult, especially for those of us who want to translate our research into the clinic. For instance, the spending power of the National Cancer Institute’s [NCI] budget has been cut by about 25 percent over the last 10 years. It's hard to do the work we need to do to develop better treatments, and it's also discouraging a whole generation of future medical leaders. The brightest students are coming out of college, looking at scientists struggling to do clinical research and thinking, "why would I want to do that?" We need these brilliant minds to continue to move the research ahead.

One dollar through philanthropy is worth $5 in NCI funding. I say that because the NCI tends to support projects that are almost certain to work, and you must do at least half of the research to prove an idea. Philanthropy dollars are so precious because we can apply them to trying completely new ideas. We can use them to get our preliminary data, and then we can turn that into an NCI grant that's many times the size of the investment. We are so grateful for our donor partners because their contributions help us move medicine forward.

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