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Mike Kastan to lead Duke Cancer Institute

Michael Kastan, MD, PhD, will lead the newly-reorganized Duke Cancer Institute. Credit: DCI

The NCI Comprehensive Cancer Center at Duke University has just announced that Michael Kastan, MD, PhD, will become its new executive director. Kastan currently serves as director of the cancer center at St. Jude Children’s Hospital in Memphis, a position he has held since 2004. A well-respected physician-scientist, Kastan oversaw St. Jude becoming the first pediatric cancer hospital to receive NCI comprehensive status.

A start date for Dr. Kastan was not apparent from the press release.

Kastan’s move to Duke comes at a critical juncture for the cancer treatment and education enterprise at the University. The Duke Cancer Institute is the entity resulting from a reorganization of the Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center in November 2010:

By uniting hundreds of cancer physicians, researchers, educators, and staff across the medical center, medical school, and health system under a shared administrative structure, the DCI will offer unprecedented opportunities for teamwork among the scientists in our labs and caregivers in our hospitals and clinics.

Central to the new organization is the anticipated February, 2012 completion of a new, seven story cancer research and treatment tower at the center of the medical campus.

As an investigator, Kastan is perhaps best known for his groundbreaking work in the early 1990s that revealed the tumor suppressor protein, p53 (TP53), in the DNA damage and cell cycle arrest response. These studies not only revealed how loss of p53 could contribute to tumorigenesis but also established mutant p53 as an anticancer drug target.

Of pride and relevance to readers of this blog is that Kastan, a high ranking research and patient care administrator, was originally trained as a chemist. From the Duke press release:

Kastan grew up in Charlotte, N.C., and earned a degree in chemistry in 1977 as a Morehead Scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He won the prestigious Venable Medal in UNC’s Department of Chemistry in 1977.

He then graduated from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Mo., and trained in pediatrics at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Md. He remained at Johns Hopkins until 1998, when he joined St. Jude as chairman of the department of hematology/oncology.

Yes, a CHEMIST! And from a great chemistry department to boot!

I had the pleasure of working with Mike for a few years in the 1990s at the Molecular Biology in Clinical Oncology Workshop of the American Association for Cancer Research. I couldn’t be more excited about him joining the Research Triangle scientific community. Most noteworthy to me is that the press release contains a range of enthusiastic comments about Kastan from both within and outside of Duke. The excitement, I think, is genuine.

Kastan’s appointment at Duke follows last week’s announcement of Harvard geneticist, Ron DePinho, as the new president of M.D. Anderson Cancer Hospital in Houston, another NCI Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Kastan’s move to Durham also comes while the Duke medical community is still smarting from a research misconduct episode that led to the departure of physician-scientist, Anil Potti. Potti resigned last November following what Duke Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy (IGSP) head Hunt Willard called, “a series of anomalies in data handling, analysis and management,” that led to four paper retractions and the cancellation of clinical trials based on the some of the retracted work. Dr. Ivan Oransky, editor of the excellent Retraction Watch blog, recently discussed a talk (with slides posted) from Keith Baggerly, one of the biostatisticans whose work uncovered issues with the Potti work.

And what other challenges await Dr. Kastan?

It may take him awhile to adapt from Memphis to North Carolina barbecue.

Addendum, May 17: Dr. Kastan was interviewed last month at the 102nd Annual Meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research in Orlando, FL. In this six-and-a-half minute interview, he discusses the regulation of the DNA damage response by ATM and p53 and how these can be exploited in cancer therapy. The description associated with the video reminded me that Dr. Kastan is currently Editor-in-Chief of the AACR journal, Molecular Cancer Research.

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