HEALTH

New Rutgers Cancer Institute Director Talks Cancer Research

The advances made in cancer research in just the past decade have, according to top oncologists, nothing short of astonishing. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) has designated the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey the state’s only comprehensive cancer center. NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams recently sat down with its newly appointed director, Dr. Steven Libutti.

Williams: Thank you for being with us. What does this designation mean?

Libutti: Well, it’s incredibly empowering. As you probably know, there are only 47 NCI designated comprehensive cancer institutes in the United States and we’re the only one in the state of New Jersey. So, that’s a tremendous responsibility for us.

Williams: The Rutgers Cancer Institute has partnerships with other major hospitals. Why are those clinical partnerships important?

Libutti: Well, they’re critically important, because it’s our ability to translate findings from our laboratories into next generation therapy that we can then bring to patients. Without a very strong hospital or health system partner it’s very difficult to get those needed therapies to the most number of patients.

Williams: You have research and clinical in the same outfit at Rutgers. What’s the benefit of that? Clinical trials?

Libutti: Yeah well not only clinical trials, but I believe that our clinical activities, the clinical care that we deliver with patients as our focus, really inspires and enables our basic scientists to understand what are the relevant problems they should be addressing? What questions should they be asking? And having the science right there really invigorates our clinical practitioners to know that they’re really at the cutting edge for what can be delivered to our patients.

Williams: Cancer research is exploding right now, based on what went on during the Human Genome Project. What’s the most exciting thing, for you, that’s going on right now?

Libutti: So I think it’s really two things. I think one is, you are absolutely right, that what we’ve learned about cancer as a group of diseases from understanding the biology of cancer, at the sequence level, has really let us develop new, targeted and more precise therapies to try to mitigate the sort of toxicities that patients used to have and maximize the benefits that we can bring. But what’s real exciting to me right now, is our ability to harness the patient’s own immune system to fight cancer, to direct that immune system to the cancer as a target. I think that’s where we are going to make a lot of progress moving forward.

Williams: Because cancer is a constellation of diseases, but also different from patient to patient, right?

Libutti: That is correct. That’s correct.

Williams: Are we going to cure cancer in our lifetimes?

Libutti: So, you know, people make very broad predictions and broad promises and I don’t have a crystal ball so I can’t answer that accurately. What I can tell you is that in the 20 plus years that I’ve been involved in cancer research and cancer care, I’ve gotten to see amazing progress being made — deaths due to cancer and incidents of cancer has dropped in the United States pretty consistently over the last eight to 10 years — and I think we are going to continue to make progress in that regard. My hope is that we make cancer a disease folks can live with for their lifespan, just like we have done with diabetes and some cardiovascular diseases. And ultimately we’re still all fighting to find that cure for cancer and we’ll keep striving at the Rutgers Cancer Institute to do that.

Williams: You come to Rutgers from Montefiore [Medical Center], which has a spectacular reputation. What have you learned there that you are going to transport here?

Libutti: Well Montefiore, as you said, is an amazing place and I had a wonderful eight years there. It’s an incredible health system that’s really focused on its community and focused on the patients that it serves. We’re going to do that, as it’s been done at Rutgers, but even more so. A re-investment, a doubling down of our efforts and really making our patients, and the patients of New Jersey, the focal point of all that we do. Both in research and in clinical care delivery.

Williams: Dr. Libutti, thanks for being here.

Libutti: Thank you for having me.