Lombardi’s Ruesch Center hosts Inaugural Symposium

February 20, 2010

Members of the Georgetown community, scientists, advocates , industry and non-profit organizations came together on February 17, 2010 for the first annual Ruesch Center Symposium. Titled “Fighting a Smarter War Against Cancer: Personalized Medicine and the Cure for Cancer,” the event highlighted several emerging technologies in the science of personalized cancer research as well as perspectives from a broad range of stakeholders in cancer research and care.

Led by John L. Marshall, MD, the Otto J. Ruesch Center for the Cure of Gastrointestinal (GI) Cancers was established in September 2009 through a gift from Jeannette W. Ruesch and family. It was founded on a three part mission of research aimed at a cure, patient-centered care and advocacy for improved research, regulatory and patient care processes. Marshall, who is chief of the Division of Hematology/Oncology for Georgetown University Hospital and associate director for clinical research at Lombardi, planned the symposium to bring together scientists, advocates, care providers and industry professionals. According to Marshall, GI cancers remain among the most fatal of cancers and advances in treatment have lagged well behind other disease priorities because of a smaller pool of research funding and fewer survivors to carry the torch of advocacy.

Marshall’s vision of personalized care was published in an opinion essay titled “Fighting a smarter war on cancer” in the Washington Post on November 29, 2009. In this piece, Marshall describes the importance of personalized medicine and expanded cancer research funding. Through both the Washington Post opinion article and this annual symposium, he seeks to raise awareness of the challenges and barriers to finding cures for all cancers, especially those in the GI tract.

Marshall kicked off part I of the symposium, “The Science of Fighting a Smarter War on Cancer” by reiterating the importance of personalized medicine rather than practicing the standard of care. According to Marshall, the current standard of care for cancer takes a World War II approach to treatment. He describes that doctors, “Bomb an entire city and hope that the munitions factories are hit in the process. Marshall believes that this approach is ineffective for a large portion of GI cancer patients as well as an insufficient approach to cancer treatment.

“Every time I give a patient the so-called standard of care it just feels wrong. On a certain level, I have failed. I know that drug isn't going to cure that patient,” says Marshall.

Marshall was joined by a panel of experts who explained some of the new technologies that are making personalized medicine possible: Hartmut Juhl, MD, founder & CEO of Indivumed, GmBH; Anton Wellstein, MD, PhD, associate director for basic science at Lombardi; Albert J. Fornace Jr., MD, the Molecular Cancer Research Chair at Lombardi; and Subha Madhavan, PhD, director of clinical research informatics at Lombardi. Each of the panelists shared a brief presentation on the scientific basis of personalized medicine followed by an open dialogue on how their work contributes to better treatments and ultimately, a cure.

Part II of the Symposium brought together experts from the pharmaceutical industry, bioethics, and advocacy to join the discussion. Mace Rothenberg, MD, senior vice president of clinical development and medical affairs at Pfizer Oncology gave the Schafer Memorial Lecture on the regulatory challenges associated with bringing targeted cancer drugs from clinical trials to market.

The Schafer lecture, funded by the Thomas R. Schafer Memorial Lecture Fund for Research and Education in Pancreatic and Gastrointestinal Cancer, was founded in 1999 as a tribute by Schafer’s family and friends. The annual lectureship is designed to share the latest innovations in cancer therapy.

Other experts included Carol Taylor, PhD, MSN, director of the Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown University, who spoke about the decisions that patients, their family and their doctors have to make every day; and Carolyn “Bo” Aldigé, president and founder of the Prevent Cancer Foundation who described the role advocacy organizations play in cancer research and care. Closing remarks were given by the Honorable W.J. (Billy) Tauzin, the president & CEO of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) and a pancreatic cancer survivor. Tauzin stressed the importance of healthcare reform and the need for policy decisions that promote greater access to personalized medicine for more individuals.

Author: Nkem T. Wellington