For a decade, Robert C. Doebele, MD, PhD has been a central figure of lung cancer research in Colorado, using cutting-edge approaches to study how “gene fusions” drive certain cancers and how cancers become resistant to targeted therapies. Now he will lead the University of Colorado Cancer Center Thoracic Oncology Research Initiative, continuing the program’s international reputation for excellence while taking advantage of new opportunities in technology and understanding to guide the program’s growth in this era of targeted treatments against cancer.
“We are delighted to have a scientist of Bob’s caliber leading our program. The basic discoveries from his lab fuel our ability to design, test and offer new therapies that are extending and even saving lives right now. With his leadership, our already excellent lung cancer research program will be in good hands for many years to come,” says Dan Theodorescu, MD, PhD, director of the CU Cancer Center.
In fact, CU Cancer Center itself was founded largely due to the work of lung cancer researcher, Paul Bunn, Jr., who was involved first at the National Cancer Institute and then in Colorado, in the development of the first genetically targeted therapies against cancer. Bunn, a past president of the American Society for Clinical Oncology (among many other honors), was instrumental in CU earning National Cancer Institute accreditation as a comprehensive cancer center, and later in being named a Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) in lung cancer.
Doebele very much continues this legacy, with his focus not just on discovery but on translating basic biological understanding into medicines that extend patients’ lives. Still, as much as new, exciting avenues of research have the potential to drive the program forward, Doebele’s vision for the program centers on people:
“The way I’m going to move this program forward is by hiring talented individuals,” he says. “It’s all about people. What really makes science is talented researchers and innovative ideas. That’s the central theme – we need innovative people here to help us think about how we’re going to attack lung cancer for the coming ten or fifteen years.”
The new lung cancer researchers Doebele hopes to recruit, or to grow from fellowship and postdoctoral programs, will in turn influence the technologies in which the program chooses to invest.
“A program can’t just buy an expensive black box and expect it to run itself. What technologies we invest in will be dictated by the types of researchers we bring in. Again, it’s really all about the people,” Doebele says.
This recruitment will be driven in part, he says, by CU Cancer Center’s track record of being able to shepherd new medicines across the drug development lifecycle, from basic biological discovery, to cell-line and animal testing, to clinical trials, and eventually to FDA approval. Again, this track record of “bench to bedside” translational research has roots with Paul Bunn and continues with Doeble’s own work. Paul Bunn’s innovative research helped to usher in the first genetically targeted treatments against the gene EGFR in lung cancer. And Doebele’s work similarly helped to show the benefit of drugs including crizotinib against ALK-positive lung cancer, and has now contributed to the development of drugs and drug combinations against alterations including those of genes ROS1, NTRK and RET.
Also driving the program’s ability to compete for the world’s top young scientists, Doebele points to the opportunities for interdisciplinary collaborations offered by what he calls “fantastic new resources” at CU Cancer Center, including partnerships with clinicians working in UCHealth hospitals across Colorado, and scientific capabilities including the ability for single-cell RNA sequencing and the new Human Immunology and Immunotherapy Initiative, which seeks to harness the power of the immune system to fight cancer.
“I’ve benefitted so much from the mentorship and collaborations here at the University of Colorado. One of the reasons I applied for this position is the passion I feel about shepherding it into the future. I’m excited to help lead this program that has been so good to me,” Doebele says.
With his leadership, the center founded by a lung cancer researcher continues its ability to point future directions of research and care in a landscape increasingly defined by hope and an ever-accelerating pace of change.