The selection of Elizabeth “Liz” Thompson last month as President of Susan G. Komen for the Cure signaled the organization's return to an even greater commitment to advancing the science that will prevent or treat breast cancer throughout the world.
Ms. Thompson had quickly ascended Komen's leadership ladder since she was hired as managing director of public and medical affairs in 2008 by then-Komen president and CEO Hala Moddelmog, who resigned suddenly in November 2009 (OT, 12/25/09).
After Ms. Moddelmog left, Komen founder Nancy G. Brinker returned to the organization in a voluntary leadership role before being named CEO last December, with the interim presidency being filled by Mike Williams, Komen senior advisor based in Washington, DC, who had previously served as Komen's interim chief financial officer.
Komen officials told OT at that time that there were no plans to find a replacement CEO, and didn't provide any additional information regarding the search for a permanent president until this fall when they announced Ms. Thompson's promotion to president from senior vice president of medical and scientific affairs.
I spoke very briefly with Ms. Brinker in September during her inaugural book signing event in New York City that launched her national tour promoting her memoir, Promise Me: How a Sister's Love Launched the Global Movement to End Breast Cancer coauthored with Joni Rodgers.
Then in early October I caught up with her by phone while she was in Houston as part of a 20-city book tour.
‘Board Decided Would Lead with the Health Sciences’
“When Liz first joined the organization I didn't have much interaction with her because I was away from 2007 through 2009 [serving as U.S. Chief of Protocol under then-President George W. Bush],” Ms. Brinker said. “But I did speak with her often and watched how she was regarded by the scientific community and the natural affinity she had for science. I watched how she executed her duties, and when the Board decided that we were going to lead with the health sciences, since this is who we are and have been, we promoted five people from within to be senior vice presidents.”
Komen formerly had a flat organizational structure and was looking to develop leadership from among the talented people who were already aboard, she explained.
“We've had good leadership in this organization...and this is a wonderful evolutionary direction. I've always dreamed of being in the place where we are now as the global leader in the fight against breast cancer and that will extend even more overseas when we develop programs and clinical approaches in other women's cancers, such as cervical cancer.”
Hala Moddelmog Now President of Arby's
Ms. Moddelmog had been hired for her business skills during a time when Komen was interested in managing its large portfolio and enhancing its affiliate relations. She had previously been a Fortune 500 executive and the first woman in corporate America to have led a quick-service restaurant brand as president of Church's Chicken. It was announced in May that she had signed a two-year contract as president of Arby's Restaurant Group Inc.
During her three years at Komen she was credited with establishing its Scientific Advisory Board; overseeing the organization's largest annual investment in research; and expanding the grassroots and international efforts, including founding both the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Advocacy Alliance and its Global Promise Fund.
‘Intense Knowledge of the Science’
But now the organization's leadership is more science-oriented. “Liz has such intense knowledge of the science and a real love for it, and with the direction we are taking in prevention we just continue to grow and steward the science into the clinic and the community,” Ms. Brinker said.
She added that since the National Cancer Institute will be able to fund only a certain number of things, a lot will depend on philanthropy, and that Komen had strengthened its fundraising into a higher dollar network of individual giving, an area the organization hadn't focused on previously.
She said she will work closely with Ms. Thompson and Katrina McGhee, executive vice president and chief marketing officer, who has also been described as the organization's chief operating officer.
Ms. Thompson said during a telephone interview that she would also be partnering with Eric P. Winer, MD, Komen's chief scientific advisor, whose full-time job is chief of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute's Division of Women's Cancers and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
The two had worked together when Ms. Thompson's responsibilities included heading the organization's global research portfolio of more than $289 million in current active grants, and managing its Scientific Advisory Board and Scientific Advisory Council, which are led by Dr. Winer.
Ms. Thompson said her former position had not yet been filled and that she would continue to oversee medical and scientific affairs for the time being.
Shift to Funding More Research
“Liz is an amazing person,” Dr. Winer told OT during a phone interview. “She has great organizational and management skills and reads people very well in addition to having great scientific taste for a non-scientist, making her the perfect person to be in a leadership position.
“Komen is about a few things: promoting science by funding it, promoting awareness, and providing education about breast cancer. During the last three years science funding has focused more on work that impacts care that women will receive in the not so distant future, and whether research projects have the potential to have an impact within the next 10 years in preventing breast cancer or death from breast cancer.”
He said the organization had been undergoing a bit of a shift toward an approach that is data driven, as it has always been, but with a real commitment to funding the research.
“Komen had always had that commitment, but I sense within the organization that there is even more enthusiasm for funding research than there has ever been. I think Nancy and everyone at Komen would be thrilled if fundraising were able to grow so the research budget could be doubled, which is a major, major priority.”
When asked if the translational target timeline of 10 years for patient benefit was similar to Stand Up To Cancer's three-year goal for its Dream Teams, Dr. Winer noted that he was directing clinical trials for the “Targeting the PI3K Pathway in Women's Cancers” dream team.
Scientific Advisory Board and Council
He also discussed the difference between Komen's Scientific Advisory Board and Scientific Advisory Council: The Board has a total of six members who provide high-level guidance to Komen in terms of its research and educational missions and serves as an executive committee for the Council, created earlier this year, which includes more than 40 full members and a dozen associate members involved in peer review of grants.
The full members are senior investigators who have already made significant contributions to the field. Each receives a $250,000 annual research grant, since they are not eligible to compete for Komen's peer-reviewed grants.
Associate members are independent investigators at earlier stages of their careers who have demonstrated promise in making future important contributions and who receive annual grants of $175,000.
“Council members have to submit research proposals, but we're not just funding the projects themselves, but individuals we trust to do good projects,” and unlike the typical peer-review mechanisms used for Komen grants, “this is a slightly different mechanism, not so much on specific projects but trusting that leaders in breast cancer research will use it wisely.”
Experience in Medical Publishing
Ms. Thompson grew up on a farm in South Dakota and graduated from the University of South Dakota's Tom Brokaw School of Communications. Her first job was in sales with Mosby Publishing and focused on nursing and allied health before she moved on to Appleton Publishing, where she rose through the medical books marketing ranks, became editor and national sales manager for the Washington Manual, and ultimately was able to realize what had been her dream job as a publisher.
“I learned about science and how people and students learn from my time in publishing,” she said. “I spent time with the very best teachers in the country when I was working with medical experts on their books, and I learned I was an idea person who loved science.”
Her first up-close encounter with cancer was also learned on the job in the 1980s when she discovered that her mentor and boss had been successfully hiding her breast cancer from others until a few weeks before her death.
“I had initially assumed she had a sofa in her office because she was president of Appleton, and only learned later that it was for napping [during treatment]....She was a very private person and I wasn't aware of what she was going through, and on her last day in the office she said she hoped that someday someone would do something about breast cancer that would make a difference.”
Ms. Thompson's next move was to southern California to work for the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation where she served as its first full-time executive director.
She then worked as a consultant and helped Nancy Roach create the Colorectal Cancer Coalition (C3), before joining the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN) as its first scientific director while continuing to develop her portfolio in advocacy.
Her husband and son are still based in California, but Ms. Thompson said much of her time will be split between Komen headquarters in Dallas and Washington, DC.
Get More Involved with Local Affiliates
“Komen has grown and changed over the years, but in some ways we are going back to our roots and will focus on science and our affiliate network and how we can deliver care to women both here and abroad.”
Dr. Winer had also mentioned that Scientific Advisory Council members would be encouraged to get more involved with local affiliates.
And Ms. Brinker summed up what Susan G. Komen for the Cure does: “Functionally, we do two things in the organization—We raise money and we give it away, and everything centers around those two pillars, including our advocacy.
“I will be working with Liz and our officers laying out our objectives, and working on development, the global side, and advocacy. Now that Liz will fill these shoes, I'll spend more time on the global side working with governments and our global alliance because we have so much great growth there and are so well known.”