Questions for Bill Nelson
Director, Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center
Over the last decade, the Johns Hopkins cancer program went from occupying one building for clinical care and research to three. Now, it has a new leader. After a two-year search, William G. Nelson, 50, was chosen in December to be director of the center. Recently, he shared his thoughts with Dome on the cancer problem in the United States, what he brings to the job, and his vision for the Cancer Center.
Why did you want to be director of the Kimmel Cancer Center?
If it were any other cancer center, I probably wouldn’t want the job. This place is special. I’ve been a researcher trying to invent new treatments and take them into the clinic. I’ve been a clinician working directly with people with cancer. I understand the promise and limitations before us.
How does your background help you as director of the center?
You are one of Johns Hopkins’ home-grown faculty members. Does this help you as director?
My work has focused almost entirely on prostate cancer, which is a great story for all of the common cancers. When I started in oncology, men were commonly diagnosed at an advanced stage and death rates were far too high. Since that time, we’ve gotten PSA (prostate specific antigen), a blood test that made it possible to diagnose men earlier so they could benefit from surgery and radiation therapy. We’ve also developed new treatments. This whole system of surgeons, medical oncologists, pathologists, researchers, all working together, is a modern paradigm that has allowed us to cut prostate cancer death rates almost in half in the last 15 years. This is the type of progress we need to make in all cancers.
I am home grown. I went to medical school here, was a graduate student, a resident, a fellow, and my whole faculty life has been here. And, I’m a professor in six departments, which helps me bring people together across the institution.
What role does prevention play?
There are about 1.4 million new cases of cancer each year, and this number is expected to increase as our population ages. Cancer is a major health concern, not just in the United States, but worldwide. Look at screening and early detection that we already do—Pap smears, mammography, colonoscopy, PSA. Their use led not only to improvements in survival but to treatments that are far less deforming and have fewer side effects. I think we have some exciting things we are working on in the laboratory, like new epigenetic drugs, which will hopefully be able to both prevent and treat cancer. We also need to address behaviors and underlying causes of cancer.
Why should someone with cancer come to Johns Hopkins for treatment?
The major difference at a place like this is that state of the art is just the starting point of what we can offer. Our mission, our brand, if you will, is to have better than the state-of-the-art cancer therapy.
What is your vision for the Cancer Center?
To become leaders in translational research. That involves taking what we learn in the lab and getting it to the clinical setting faster. We believe that the tools being developed in the lab can help us perform this way. We can figure out whom to treat, how to treat them and do it much more rapidly.