Corner office: Dr. Ronald DePinho of MD Anderson Cancer Center on his one and only mission

Ronald DePinho, MD, has led The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center as president since September 2011. Here, he took the time to answer Becker's Hospital Review's seven questions.

Ronald DePinho, MD, has led The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center as president since September 2011. About 120,000 patients visit the center each year, and the institution's cancer clinical trial program is the largest in the country. Dr. Ronald DePinho

Dr. DePinho oversaw the 2012 launch of MD Anderson's Moon Shots Program, which challenges physicians and scientists to target eight types of cancer and dramatically reduce mortality for the diseases. The program was inspired the all-out team effort it took to meet President John F. Kennedy's promise to send an American to the moon only seven years after he made it in Houston in 1961. The Moon Shots Program is meant to accelerate clinical research into cancer treatments for patients that extend or save lives, as MD Anderson leaders articulate clear milestones and develop operating and business plans for each moon shot.

Internationally known for his basic and translational cancer research, Dr. DePinho's findings have helped advance cancer detection and drug development. Some of his most notable contributions related to the link between advancing age and increasing risk of cancer. In addition to research in the lab, Dr. DePinho has written more than 250 peer-reviewed articles for scientific journals, contributed to more than 50 books, chapters and review articles, and has helped spur the dozens of scientists' careers in basic and translational research.

Dr. DePinho hails from New York City. He was born in the Bronx, attended Fordham University for his bachelor's degree and earned his medical degree from Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Before joining MD Anderson, he spent 14 years as founding director of the Belfer Institute for Applied Cancer Science at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and professor in the Department of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He also spent 10 years in faculty positions at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where he established the first National Cancer Institute-supported shared transgenic and gene targeting facility.

Dr. DePinho and his wife, Lynda Chin, MD, a cancer physician-scientist, are the parents of three children.

Here, he took the time to answer Becker's Hospital Review's seven questions.

What's one thing that really piqued your interest in healthcare?

During my formative years as a physician more than 30 years ago, I grew to appreciate the physical and emotional challenges patients and families experience in the face of disease, particularly cancer. I wanted to help alleviate this burden, but quickly recognized it would take both improvements in cancer delivery and access as well as the application of new molecular insights and transformative technology made possible by the recombinant DNA revolution. I was drawn to the concept of using knowledge and technology to convert our "disease" care system to "health" care through prevention, early disease detection and genome-informed treatment.   

What do you enjoy most about Houston?

First and foremost, it's the people. People in Houston — and frankly throughout Texas — are warm and friendly. It's very common to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger at some point during your day. Houston is also the most diverse city in the nation, very socially progressive, and welcoming of the many new individuals that come to this city of opportunity. If you've got talent and something to contribute, you are embraced by its residents.  

It's a city with a lot going on. Great food, lots of entertainment options including a top-tier theater district. However, I think the most unique thing in the city is the Texas Medical Center, which MD Anderson is proud to be part of. The TMC in Houston is the largest medical complex in the world. There's nothing like it anywhere else. It's home to over 50 institutions including 21 hospitals. This incredible cluster of knowledge is big part of our success in recruiting and retaining some of the finest cancer specialists and researchers in the world.

If you could eliminate one of the healthcare industry's problems overnight, which would it be?

Right now, our biggest concern is access. Health reform needs to ensure more people have health coverage. But that's not enough. Reform efforts also need to guarantee families can receive high-quality specialized care from those with deep expertise when they need it.

As an NCI-designated institution that often cares for people fighting difficult-to-treat cancers, we're concerned that many of the plans offered through state and federal exchanges do not currently allow for access to top cancer centers like MD Anderson, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and Mayo Clinic. We want to make sure patients can come to these centers when they need to. Cancer is an incredibly complex family of diseases, and sometimes people need to be treated by those with highly advanced expertise. We hope such patient-oriented adjustments can be made in the near future to remedy this issue.

We also want to break down other barriers to sharing the knowledge gained in our clinics and labs. We're in the midst of developing the Oncology Expert Advisor powered by IBM Watson. The third-generation cognitive computing system is being built to analyze physician notes, medical outcomes information and medical literature. A physician can use the system to weigh the profile of a patient they are treating against OEA's knowledge base to determine treatment options relevant to that particular patient, based on literature, guidelines and expert recommendations. It will help physicians at MD Anderson and elsewhere in deciding the best cancer care options for patients.   

What do you consider your greatest talent or skill outside of the C-suite?

When I'm not on the 20th floor of the T. Boone Pickens Building, where our cancer center's administrative offices reside, I can normally be found meeting with researchers in my lab on the south side of our campus. I run a basic science lab working to understand cancer processes to illuminate a path toward improved cancer detection and treatment. We're also looking at the relationship between aging and degenerative diseases. I've always loved my work in the lab. Over the past few years, I focused a great deal on helping other researchers at MD Anderson with their research programs, particularly our cancer moon shot initiative.

How do you revitalize yourself?

That's easy: time with my family. We have two girls and a boy. After spending time with them, I always feel refreshed and focused. I also enjoy vigorous exercise.

What's one piece of advice you remember most clearly?

Have the courage to drive change that improves the lives of patients and be prepared to take criticism seriously but not personally.

What do you consider your greatest achievement at MD Anderson so far?

That's difficult and almost impossible to answer given the many achievements of our current faculty and those who came before us. I would have to say that there are two things that I find truly remarkable about this institution.

First, it's the unwavering focus on the patient. We all know that healthcare organizations are sometimes guilty of appearing impersonal or daunting. But not here. From the moment a patient steps out of the car, an employee or volunteer is there to meet them and get them where they need to be, while at the same time, making that person feel at home. Once in a while, I head over to our main entrance and watch this as it takes place. This patient-centered approach can be found throughout a patient's entire cancer journey at MD Anderson. Of course we can always do better when it comes to meeting the needs of our patients, but we have something truly great here to maintain and build upon.

Secondly, I would say our greatest achievement is consistency. Since we were established over 70 years ago, MD Anderson has never lost sight or our one and only mission: to end this terrible disease. We're tremendously proud of the advances in cancer prevention, detection and treatment that stemmed from work in our labs and clinics. We're also excited about the promise of our current work such as our immunotherapy program, which is working to rapidly expand on its past successes in developing therapies that use the body's own immune system to attack cancer.

Right now, I'm also particularly excited about our work in breast cancer. Just this past summer, we were pleased to announce that Craig Jordan, PhD, who is known for developing the lifesaving drug tamoxifen and several related compounds used to fight cancer, is joining MD Anderson. We're excited to see what he accomplishes next. 


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