The Ohio State University Alumni Association

Every day, people from across the university share a singular goal.

A look at the many ways Ohio State works to tackle cancer and the role of its new $750 million James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute.

The new James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute is many things.

A teaching center, a research and clinical hub, a technological marvel and the largest construction project in Ohio State history. But when the 21-story, $750 million behemoth opens in December, perhaps its most important role will be as the lodestar for Ohio State’s broad and diverse cancer program.

“The university has made a very clear statement about the importance of preventing and treating cancer with the hospital we just built,” said Dr. Michael Caligiuri, director of The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center and CEO of the James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute.

That commitment extends far beyond the medical school. Researchers from Ohio State’s colleges of Engineering, Public Health, Nursing, Veterinary Medicine, Pharmacy, Dentistry and Law also are leading the charge against cancer. In fact, the OSUCCC–James, the umbrella organization that supports Ohio State’s cancer research, includes more than 250 scientists from 12 of the university’s 14 colleges. Their work spans molecular genetics to end-of-life care to tobacco cessation public policy.

Ohio State is alone nationally in having a comprehensive cancer center — a designation the National Cancer Institute has given only 41 research institutions — and a freestanding cancer hospital within an academic medical center at one of the nation’s largest public universities. “It’s an amazingly rich cancer program,” Caligiuri said.

Cancer, of course, is complex. Every year, it afflicts more than 1 million people in the United States, killing some 500,000. It’s going to take an all-hands-on-deck effort to beat the disease — the second-leading cause of death in this country — and that’s happening at Ohio State. Those involved are developing new drugs, forming innovative partnerships, commercializing inventions and changing behavior. They’re tackling the disease from all sides — and they’re seeing results. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful environment for anybody who’s serious about trying to cure cancer,” Caligiuri said.

The associate professor of chemical engineering has made the disease the main focus of her research since arriving at Ohio State eight years ago. Winter also is a breast cancer survivor. She was diagnosed in 2011, and her recovery — involving a mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation and reconstructive surgery — took two years.

“I had kind of the whole package,” she said.

While undergoing treatment at the James, Winter never stopped working. She battled depression for a couple weeks following her diagnosis, but soon decided she’d rather spend time doing something she loved — her research in the emerging field of nanotechnology — than dwell in self-pity. “It’s amazing what you can do from your bed with an iPad,” she said, laughing.

Her personal experience with cancer also changed the course of her career in a more profound way. Soon after her diagnosis, she told her colleagues she no longer was satisfied with basic scientific research — the pure pursuit of knowledge. “I could make a whole career like that, and I would be fine,” she said. “I could get funding. I could have a vibrant research group.” What she likely wouldn’t have, though, is the opportunity to see results extend beyond her lab to affect lives today.

Three of her students — Kunal Parikh, Gang Ruan and Kalpesh Mahajan — took up her challenge. While she was still in treatment, they put together a business plan that proposed commercializing Winter’s research. They entered the idea in the 2012 Ohio State Business Plan Competition, hosted by Fisher College of Business, and won first prize. Shortly thereafter, Winter incorporated Core Quantum Technologies, which received $100,000 from the Ohio Third Frontier Commission that same year.

Core Quantum produces nanoparticles — microscopic bits of matter about 100,000 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair — that help detect cancer. The nanoparticles glow in ultraviolet light, making it easier to diagnose cancer cells under a microscope. Core Quantum’s MultiDots are brighter and don’t degrade as quickly as other quantum dots on the market.

Winter is committed to bringing the product to market. She’s conducted two successful limited clinical trials and is gearing up for a more extensive one, which she hopes will gain MultiDots the approval of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The path she chose is challenging. Funding for translational science — research that attempts to bring laboratory findings to the real world — is harder to land. And coming up with a useful clinical product requires collaboration with clinicians from the outset. But Winter said it’s worth it: “It’s more difficult, but I decided, what’s the point if I’m not trying to actually impact something now with what I’m doing?”

He doesn’t wear a lab coat. He’s not an expert in genetics, robotic surgery or some other advanced medical field. Instead, he’s a lawyer and public policy expert who focuses on tobacco cessation laws and regulations.

And although social and cultural aspects of the disease don’t jump to mind when you think of cancer research, Berman’s work can be just as important.

“If we want a cancer-free world, keeping cancer from showing up in the first place seems like an obvious place to start,” said Berman, an assistant professor of public health and law at Ohio State.

Berman is part of an interdisciplinary research group that highlights Ohio State’s commitment to exploring cancer in all of its complexity. In 2013, the university received an $18.7 million federal grant to establish the Center of Excellence in Regulatory Tobacco Science, or CERTS. Berman and 17 others from six colleges have undertaken a broad research program that’s exploring, among other issues, warning labels on tobacco products, industry marketing practices and why people start smoking. Led by co-principal investigators Peter Shields, deputy director of the OSUCCC–James, and Mary Ellen Wewers, a professor in the College of Public Health, CERTS provides scientific research to support the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s new responsibility in tobacco regulation.

Tobacco policy has long fascinated Berman, who previously led public policy organizations in Columbus and Boston, and was involved in innovative tobacco-control initiatives in New York City and elsewhere.

“It just seemed to me this was an obvious issue to focus on,” said Berman, who grew up in the Columbus suburb of Bexley.

Tobacco kills roughly half a million people every year in the United States — and most of those deaths are preventable. “If you only think about the medical side of it, you’re missing some of the most significant pieces,” said Berman, who is part of a CERTS team that researches point-of-sale tobacco marketing. “You’re missing the chance to prevent cancer from happening in the first place.”

Lung cancer offers a particularly vivid example. Very hard to treat, it kills more Americans every year than any other form of the disease. “The worst way to deal with lung cancer,” Berman said, “is to wait until it shows up and then try to figure out what you’re going to do about it.”

Berman never smoked, nor did anyone else in his family. But, growing up, he witnessed the impact of cigarettes, which he calls “the most deadly consumer product ever.” His father, Harold, is a rabbi, and the family phone rang every time someone in his congregation passed away. Frequently, lung cancer was to blame. “From a very early age, I got a sense of what tobacco can do to people and to families.”

Next to the toy spaceship — a gift from one of his students — Roychowdhury has written the phrase “Kobayashi Maru,” referring to the Starfleet training exercise that tests a cadet’s character in a no-win situation. “It’s not what you do; it’s how you do it,” Roychowdhury said. “The same is true for our team.”

Indeed, cancer can feel like an impossible challenge. Adversity is an inevitable byproduct of studying and treating the disease. But the analogy is apt for another reason, too. Like Captain Kirk, who beat the Kobayashi Maru by changing the rules of the game (“I don’t believe in the no-win scenario,” he said), Roychowdhury’s team is doing the same with cancer.

Roychowdhury specializes in the emerging field of “precision cancer medicine.” The physician-scientist collaborates with genomic experts, computational biologists, medical oncologists, pathologists and radiologists to understand cancer at the molecular level. Using advanced genomic technologies, they identify genetic information within each patient’s tumor to develop targeted, personalized treatments.

“It’s like looking for the thumbprint in every single cancer,” said Dr. Michael Caligiuri, director of The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center and CEO of the James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute. “Every cancer is different. And we need to know what’s different about each cancer to treat it precisely.”

The new approach can accelerate drug development, improve patient care and avoid unnecessary treatments, Roychowdhury said. “We can identify the right drug for the right patient. We can get them to the right therapies faster. We can complete therapeutic studies faster. We can do clinical trials faster.”

Ohio State has embraced the new direction. The James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute is one of the few places in the country with a precision cancer medicine clinic, launched in late 2013. Laboratories on inpatient floors will be equipped for genomics data analysis, bringing precision cancer medicine to the bedside.

Roychowdhury — who earned his undergraduate, doctoral and medical degrees from Ohio State — is director of the clinic. He left Ohio State to pursue postdoctoral training at the University of Michigan, but returned in 2013 to focus on precision cancer medicine.

At the top of the whiteboard in his office, he’s written two questions that define his work: What is the right drug for my patient? And why does it fail? “That’s my mission,” he said. And how long have the questions been there? “Day one.”

The drink — and other foods engineered by Schwartz and his team at the university’s Center for Advanced Functional Foods Research and Entrepreneurship — may be a powerful cancer prevention tool.

“We really want to understand why some foods and diets are associated with a reduced risk of certain cancers and what the components of those diets are that really inhibit cancer,” Schwartz said.

CAFFRE, as the center is known, wants to take foods “from crops to the clinic to the consumer,” and interdisciplinary collaboration is key. The center is part of the College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences — and is funded by the Ohio Agriculture Research and Development Center — but also includes 44 researchers and collaborators across campus, including The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center and the colleges of Pharmacy, Veterinary Medicine and Public Health, among others.

In addition to the tomato juice project, CAFFRE scientists are exploring the cancer prevention benefits of black raspberries, avocados and newly developed “tangerine” tomatoes. “We see foods as a form of prevention, not so much as a cure,” said Jessica Cooperstone, a graduate research associate at the center.

Scientists have long known that people with tomato-rich diets have decreased risk for certain diseases, especially prostate cancer. Studies also have shown that if tomatoes are consumed with soy, compounds in each work together to provide benefits beyond what you’d expect from them individually.

That evidence inspired the center’s soy-infused tomato juice. The drink has gone through two clinical trials supervised by Dr. Steve Clinton, an oncologist with the Comprehensive Cancer Center. Clinton and his team looked at how healthy people, as well as men with prostate cancer, absorbed the compounds.

The juice wasn’t palatable at first — too gritty and pasty — but food scientists eventually developed a tastier version. “In fact, the prostate cancer subjects wanted to know where they could buy it,” Schwartz said. That’s not an option — yet. “A number of companies have come to talk to us about it.”

In September, Ulman stepped into his new role as president and CEO of Pelotonia, the annual bike ride that has raised more than $61 million for cancer research at Ohio State — and a projected $80 million-plus when fundraising totals from this year’s ride are announced in November. The ride’s significant success attracted Ulman’s attention.

“Nationally, people are starting to realize that Columbus is starting to become the hub of cancer-related philanthropy and care and research — and that’s because of Pelotonia, the James and Ohio State,” Ulman said. “This community is changing lives here and across the world.”

No one knows this better than Dr. Michael Caligiuri, director of Ohio State’s Comprehensive Cancer Center and CEO of the James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute. When he was in medical school in the 1980s, he said, “No one was cured of cancer. Everyone died.”

Not so today. “What’s changed in 30 years? Research. Cancer research requires money.”

Caligiuri credits Pelotonia for making it possible to recruit world-renowned cancer experts to Ohio State, fund innovative research studies and clinical trials, acquire state-of-the-art equipment and fuel the next generation of scientists.

With the opening of the nation’s third-largest cancer hospital and Pelotonia providing a revenue stream for groundbreaking research, Ulman arrives at a critical moment in Ohio State’s fight to end cancer. He and his family “are in awe of what’s happening here in Columbus, what’s happening with Ohio State and the James,” he said. “To be part of that is an honor.”

In addition to his role at Pelotonia, Ulman will work on behalf of OSUCCC–James by building national awareness and support for its work in research, education and prevention.

Ulman, a three-time cancer survivor, is a widely recognized ambassador and well-respected voice in the cancer community. The Maryland native has been named twice to the Non-Profit Times’ Power and Influence Top 50, and he has more than 1 million Twitter followers.

Crediting the leadership of Caligiuri and others for Pelotonia’s success, Ohio State President Michael V. Drake said, “Now we need the best leadership possible to extend it forward and help it grow, and that’s Doug Ulman — really the best leader in the country for this work. We’re really pleased to bring him here.”

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