BY Michael A. Caligiuri, MD
Michael A. Caligiuri, MD, a member of OT’s Editorial Board, is Director of The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center and CEO of Ohio State’s James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute.
Some of the best discoveries that have changed the course of cancer medicine have resulted from collaborations with the right people at the right time. Many of these collaborations have been made possible by renowned academic awards.
Young cancer scientists vigorously pursue research programs and search for moments of inspiration and engagement to continually drive their curiosity and commitment. Many of us in this field decided to pursue careers in cancer research because we were inspired to do our part to change the world. As a young medical student at Stanford University, I relished every opportunity to meet some of the “superstars” in medicine who shared my passion for creating a world without cancer. The opportunities to engage and network with our global colleagues were limited but growing, and each opportunity offered a wealth of feedback, new ideas, and, perhaps most importantly, inspiration.
The field of oncology and our research priorities have evolved significantly in the past several decades. This era of history has introduced our community to world-changing genetic discoveries and modern technologies that have helped to improve our understanding of tumorigenesis and genetic mutations that influence how we diagnose and treat cancer. And throughout this time, we’ve thrived on the ability to collaborate and learn with colleagues to drive these discoveries.
It was 20 years ago that members of the Block family of Columbus, Ohio, met with the director of The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center and expressed a desire to honor their father, Herbert J. Block, who had died of cancer several years before, by setting up a fund that would drive more advances in cancer through greater engagement and cross-industry collaborations. That idea led to one of the largest and most esteemed prizes awarded by an academic institution in the field of cancer: the Herbert Block Memorial Lectureship Award for Distinguished Achievement in Cancer.
Each year, an individual whose contributions to cancer research or patient care have received international recognition is invited to the University to accept a monetary prize, which now stands at $25,000, and deliver the annual Block Lecture. In those 20 years, the award – which was renamed the Herbert and Maxine Block Memorial Lectureship Award for Distinguished Achievement in Cancer after the family’s mother died of cancer in 1998 – has benefited the community in countless ways.
The annual award recipient spends time at Ohio State to lecture and meet with researchers, share experiences, answer questions and offer guidance. But the award has also offered opportunities to connect the cancer research community to the broader public through conversations and educational opportunities. For example, previous recipient Dr. Larry Norton delivered the Block Lecture and later spoke with a group of several hundred community members on the importance of diet and cancer. Events such as these offer a view of the important role that research plays in cancer care and increase student interest in research careers. This experience epitomizes the importance of dedicated philanthropy.
Besides recognizing important achievements and offering a financial incentive, the award fosters engagement and relationships by bringing some of the best scientific minds to Ohio State for an intellectual exchange on current and future cancer research. This dialogue between experienced leaders and young minds in science generates extraordinary ideas that drive groundbreaking discoveries.
As we celebrate the Block Lectureship’s 20th anniversary, it is remarkable to reflect on the careers of the award recipients and the collaborations made possible by this award. For example:
- The story of Dr. Carlo Croce, director of human cancer genetics at Ohio State, is particularly poignant. After Dr. Croce received the Block Lectureship in 2004, he joined the Comprehensive Cancer Center’s advisory board and later became a member of the Ohio State faculty. He is furthering his breakthrough research on microRNA and its role in the genesis of cancer at Ohio State. As a result, at least a dozen researchers here are now fully dedicated to this important area of study.
- Dr. V. Craig Jordan, who received the award in 1997, sees the Lectureship as an important part of the research process. Dr. Jordan, who is now the scientific director of the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center at Georgetown University, specializes in drugs for breast cancer treatment and prevention and was among the first to discover the breast cancer prevention properties of the drug tamoxifen. He recently published a book on his process, including guidance for young investigators on “scientific survival” by learning from exposure to scientific leaders through effective collaborations. Dr. Jordan considers feedback from his peer community and mentors through programs such as the Block Lectureship to be invaluable to the insights he gained that later translated to greater patient benefit.
- Dr. Bert Vogelstein, director of the Ludwig Center for Cancer Genetics and Therapeutics at The Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, was the 1995 Block Award recipient and has contributed significantly to the field of molecular genetics in human cancer, including development of a specific model for human tumorigenesis. His discoveries have triggered a broad range of research programs and studies on molecular genetics, and his review of research philosophies as a Block Lecturer has been widely regarded as a foundation for today’s research priorities.
Today, as we search for the next era of discoveries – and maybe even cures for cancer – academic awards have never been more critical. Academic programs such as the Block Lectureship are vital to maintaining a dialogue across the research community and generating discoveries that will make a difference for every person diagnosed with cancer.
With the lessons learned and collaborations formed, young cancer investigators gain the inspiration to do great things together – and to ultimately change the field of cancer medicine.
Recipients to Date
The 19 recipients of the award to date are:
- Bruce Chabner, MD
- Kathleen M. Foley, MD
- Samuel Broder, MD
- Robert C. Young, MD
- Bert Vogelstein, MD
- Judah Folkman, MD
- V. Craig Jordan, PhD, DSc
- Barbara K. Rimer, DrPH
- Richard D. Klausner, MD
- John Potter, MD, PhD
- Donald Coffey, PhD
- David Botstein, PhD
- Daniel Von Hoff, MD
- Carlo Croce, MD
- Larry Norton, MD
- C. Norman Coleman, MD
- Steven A. Rosenberg, MD, PhD
- George Klein, MD, PHD
- Levi Garraway, MD, PhD
The recipient of this year’s award will be announced next month.