This year's John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's “genius grants” awards included two well-known names in oncology:
* Olufunmilayo “Funmi” Olopade, MD, Professor of Medicine and Human Genetics and Director of the Center For Clinical Cancer Genetics at the University of Chicago Medical Center—whose research on individual and population cancer susceptibility has been translated into effective clinical practice for treating breast cancer among African and African-American women.
* Michael R. Cohen, RPh, MS, ScD, President of the Institute for Safe Medication Practices (ISMP), who was honored for his national efforts to ensure safe medication use and protect patients.
The two join the legion of 707 Fellows who've received phone calls out of the blue over the past 25 years letting them know that the MacArthur Foundation considers them “highly creative people working across a wide spectrum of activity” who've played critical roles in society.
Mark Fitzsimmons, Associate Director of the MacArthur Fellows Program, noted in a telephone interview that the diversity of awards illustrate that “there are creative people all around us, and they're in surprising places.”
Mr. Fitzsimmons said the calls notifying the 25 awardees of their selection were generally made over two to three days with recipient reactions running the gamut from shocked, surprised, and honored, to very quiet and humbled. He said that aside from the call and the subsequent funding, there is no formal ceremony marking the award.
The five-year, $100,000 per year grants are strictly unrestrictive, without any responsibility on the part of the recipients to report back on the use of the funds, or the progress of their work.
Dr. Olopade was still ecstatic when OT reached her by telephone a week after she'd been told she'd been chosen as a Fellow and had to honor a six-day embargo on telling anyone—except for a single person.
She said she'd been in her Chicago office the afternoon of Sept. 14, with two research associates when Daniel J. Socolow, Director of the Fellows Program, called, gave a brief preamble, and asked if she was alone.
After her colleagues left, Dr. Olopade was told about being one of the 25 recipients, and after learning that the nomination and selection process was secretive, she was told she'd receive a check in the next three months, and would probably never hear from Mr. Socolow again.
“I couldn't believe it,” she said. “Me, a medical oncologist, being so honored, I couldn't wait to tell my husband.”
Coincidentally, it was through her husband, Christopher Olopade, MD, a pulmonologist at the University of Illinois, that she had met MacArthur Foundation President Jonathan F. Fanton several months earlier. Christopher Olopade is also President of the Nigerian Higher Education Foundation, and was discussing a grant from another, separate part of the MacArthur Foundation.
“I had just received an annual report from MacArthur two weeks before I was notified of my award,” Funmi Olopade said. “I thought I was just a part of a database, but I realized I'd given my card to Mr. Fanton. Mr. Socolow assured me that one thing had absolutely nothing to do with the other, although I was much more familiar with the Fellowship Program than I would have been if I hadn't read the report, and learned about this wonderful program.”
When asked what she would do with the money, Dr. Olopade said she had about 10 different ideas, and was grateful she had three months to organize her thoughts.
She would use some of the funds for travel related to her work in breast cancer research on the molecular genetics of women of African heritage, especially since she usually spends one week each year returning to her native Nigeria to teach, and she said the funds would also help her give back to Africa.
She mentioned two people who had played important roles in her professional development: Her late father, who had ensured that she—a woman in Africa—would receive as good a first-rate education as any man; and John H. Glick, MD, Director of the Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania, who as ASCO President in 1996, had placed her in charge of a Society task force on genetic testing.
Dr. Cohen, the first pharmacist to be honored as a MacArthur Fellow, was in New Zealand when he received the call from Mr. Socolow. Dr. Cohen had just arrived there, went straight to his hotel, ordered room service, and wanted to go to sleep before awakening for a 6 am Auckland-time conference call with an Institute of Medicine committee he served on, prior to attending an early morning meeting.
But jet lag and concern about not getting enough rest before his Auckland meetings prevented him from sleeping, so he finally got out of bed to place his IOM call, when the phone rang.
“I thought it was the meeting calling me,” he related, “but instead it was Daniel Socolow, who began asking me questions about a potential nominee for the MacArthur Fellowship until he finally said that I knew the candidate very well,” saying that the “candidate” turned out to be a recipient and it just happened to be Mr. Cohen.
The whirlwind was continuing for more than a week when OT spoke with him back in the suburban-Philadelphia headquarters of ISMP, a clearinghouse for distributing impartial medical safety information.
Under the leadership of Michael Cohen, ISMP has promoted increased consumer vigilance, drug industry accountability, and medical practitioner responsibility since its founding in 1993. He also co-founded the Medical Error Reporting Program now administered by US Pharmacopoeia.
He said he hadn't yet had a chance to meet with his ISMP colleagues to discuss potential uses for the grant money, but noted that he knew he wanted to do something focusing on pediatrics.
He said he first got interested in monitoring patient safety by reducing preventable drug and drug delivery mistakes when he was a young pharmacist at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, where he received his BS and MS degrees.
“I worked in the men's surgical ward, which was unusual for a pharmacist,” he said, “and used to make all the medications right there for the nurses. Since I was just outside the unit, the doctors and nurses would see me and start to ask me medication questions as if I were some sort of confidant.
“Instead of seeing me as the enemy, they'd tell me about things that went wrong, hoping maybe we could come up with something better.”
In 1975, he started a column in Hospital Pharmacy (published by OT's publisher, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins), for which he remains an editor, which became the de facto means of reporting medication errors, a role now also played by his organization's ISMP Medication Safety Alert! newsletter. The information focuses on not where problems occurred, but rather, what occurred and how to reduce them.
He also lamented that many of the medication errors we still have today are similar to those 30 years ago because of drug naming, labeling, and other factors.
But half-a-million dollars can go a long way—at least over five years—in helping to sustain this independent drug-safety monitoring watchdog organization.