Dr. Leonidas Platanias is a world-renowned oncologist, whose work in molecular biology and biochemistry, particularly his research on interferons and cytokines, has been an invaluable contribution to immunotherapy and the fight against cancer. On the occasion of his participation in HealthWorld 2022, Business Partners reached out to him to talk about his work in cancer research, the impact of new tech, the importance of mindsets, and the prospects for healthcare R&D in Greece.
Since taking over as Director of the Robert H. Lurie Cancer Center in 2014, you’ve set out to establish Chicago as a global leader in personalized cancer treatment. Tell us a bit about your research and your work at the center.
Since 2014, the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University has experienced dynamic growth in National Cancer Institute (NCI) funding, publications, and the number of patients enrolled in early-phase clinical trials. In 2018, the Lurie Cancer Center received the highest rating in its history from the NCI, an overall exceptional and a near-perfect impact score on the competitive renewal of its Cancer Center Support Grant.
As Director of the Lurie Cancer Center at Northwestern, I oversee all cancer-related activities, including clinical research. My own research—investigations that span more than 30 years and 350 published papers—is focused on signaling pathways in malignant cells and developing therapies that target those pathways. Much of my work has involved cytokines, blood proteins that have important links to cancer and other diseases.
Perseverance—and bold goals—are vital to discovery and progress
There is no denying that new technologies are transforming everything—including healthcare. How is the rise of machine learning, big data and AI impacting cancer research?
Major advances in machine learning technologies, big data and artificial intelligence have tremendous potential to transform the diagnosis and personalized treatment of cancer. As access to high quality data grows, we are intentionally creating collaborative opportunities across Northwestern to harness the abilities of these powerful tools.
Lurie Cancer Center’s Center for Cancer Genomics (CCG) is just one example. Established to leverage these technologies to identify new therapeutic targets and guide individualized cancer care, the expertise of CCG investigators includes large-scale genomic/epigenomic profiling, whole-genome DNA methylation, higher-order chromatin structure, spatial genomics, and single cell technologies. In addition, the CCG will expand our strength in computational biology, and in particular, the application of machine learning in genomics.
The COVID-19 pandemic gave us a glimpse of what can be achieved when the public and private sector rally together to mount a rapid response to a health threat. What are the takeaways from that experience, and can they be used in the longstanding, and in many cases chronically underfunded, fight against cancer?
A cancer diagnosis and cancer treatment are always stressful, but dealing with cancer during a pandemic is extraordinarily difficult. Among the people affected by the devastating impact of COVID-19, patients with cancer have paid a very high toll. The pandemic did not stop cancer care at Lurie Cancer Center, but COVID-19 did force us to adjust how we do things to protect our patients and make sure they get the treatments they needed. The pandemic was also a catalyst for adopting new technologies, including telehealth-based cancer care, virtual meetings, and online education. Going forward, it will be important to ensure that they are available equitably, so that everyone can benefit from these tools and services.
In addition, a mass departure from the workforce spurred by COVID-19 has had a significant impact on healthcare and clinical research. I chair an Association of American Cancer Institutes’ Task Force established to develop recommendations for retaining and recruiting top talent in clinical trials offices, both immediately and in the long term.
As you’ve proven in your own career, when pushing the boundaries of established knowledge, sometimes it pays to go against the grain and take risks—to have that kind of nerve and perseverance that’s essential to discovery and innovation. What role does having the right mindset, at the personal and societal level, play in advancing medical science and treatments?
In these extraordinary times, perseverance—and bold goals—are vital to discovery and progress. Research has always informed patient care. Today, new tools and insights give us more opportunities to transform patient care and push the boundaries of what’s possible. My commitment as director of the Lurie Cancer Center is to dedicate our energies, resources and the expertise of our physicians and scientists to conducting innovative, research, and educational programs.
We are focusing on high-impact tools, including epigenetics, immunology, nanotechnology, and metabolism to address the most challenging questions in research and most significant barriers to progress. Working across disciplines, our goal is to improve outcomes and access to quality care across the cancer continuum.
Looking at Greece, and taking into account the considerable changes—policy, regulatory and even mindset—we’ve seen in recent years, what are your thoughts on the future of healthcare R&D in the country?
I have been impressed by the progress of healthcare and R&D in Greece and the overall progress of Greece as a country in recent years. I think there is great potential for growth and future successes in this area. So, I am very optimistic about the future.
Dr. Leonidas Platanias is Director of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University, as well as Associate Vice President for Cancer Programs and the Jesse, Sara, Andrew, Abigail, Benjamin and Elizabeth Lurie Professor of Oncology in the Departments of Medicine and Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics. He has published more than 350 papers, won numerous awards and participated in various scientific societies, panels and journals. He has served on the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) Subcommittee A for Cancer Centers and as a member of the Association of American Cancer Institutes’ (AACI) Board of Directors.