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Q&A: New University of Maryland Greenebaum Cancer Center Director Discusses His Goals, Vision and More

Kevin J. Cullen, M.D., a highly regarded medical oncologist who specializes in head and neck cancer, was recently named as director of the UM Greenebaum Cancer Center (UMGCC) effective in January 2004. Dr. Cullen comes from the Lombardi Cancer Center at Georgetown University, where he has served as interim director and as leader of the head and neck clinical service.

Dr. Cullen talks about his goals for UMGCC, his approach to patient care and faculty recruitment, his clinical and research programs and much more in the following interview.

What are your major goals and priorities for the UM Greenebaum Cancer Center?

The goal that faces me is to promote the growth and development of the cancer center over the next several years. The priorities are to expand the multidisciplinary teams that are already present within the cancer center and to make their services available to a broader range and number of patients.

I will recruit some very strong translational researchers to complement the excellent researchers who are already here. I am committed to strengthening our position as one of the finest cancer centers in the region for patient care and research.

What attracted you to the UM Greenebaum Cancer Center?

The University of Maryland is blessed with an outstanding medical school and a very strong medical center. There are some real areas of excellence, including the transplant program, shock trauma, etc. There are also a number of areas of excellence within the cancer center. There are outstanding clinicians and researchers, but what became most attractive is with that base, the University and the hospital have made a very strong commitment to develop the cancer center and promote its growth. They've put together the space and resources to facilitate the growth of the center. The goal will be that within a few years Maryland will become an NCI-designated comprehensive cancer center, and building on the strengths that are already here, I'm sure we will see a time of unprecedented growth and success for the cancer center.

Recruiting talented faculty (clinicians and researchers) is a key part of your job. What do you see as the keys to success in this area?

The keys to recruiting faculty are several: First, you have to have a strong scientific and clinical base, which Maryland clearly has. You have to have the resources both in terms of space and funding to promote new research, to bring new faculty in and to promote new projects and enhance existing projects. Both the hospital and University understand that, and have provided the resources to make it happen. So with that combination of resources and existing strengths, I think we will be very successful in recruiting additional top-notch faculty.

Talk about your background/experience as both a cancer clinician and researcher.

My clinical and research work are focused on head and neck cancer. I run the head and neck clinical service at Georgetown, which is a very strong multidisciplinary program that is tightly integrated with our surgeons and radiation therapists. We're the largest head and neck program in Washington.

My laboratory is also focused on head and neck cancer, specifically molecular mechanisms of chemotherapy drug resistance in the treatment of head and neck cancer, or why some patients respond beautifully to the medicines we have and why others aren't so fortunate. We study this for several reasons. First, to more accurately be able to tell a patient when they're diagnosed, 'Yes, chemotherapy will help you' or 'No, it won't,' and therefore we should either give it or think about some alternative therapy. Secondly, once we know what the mechanisms are that are involved in chemotherapy sensitivity and resistance, we can design new treatment strategies to help patients.

When you know the pathways that are involved in determining the response of a given tumor to a given drug, then you can make a much more informed decision about how to treat the patient. Finally, I am very focused on sharing my laboratory's results collaboratively with researchers and clinicians working on other diseases so that we can improve our knowledge base in many areas.

Are you going to be continuing this work at the UM Greenebaum Cancer Center?

I will have a clinical practice when I move to Maryland, and I will also move my lab to Maryland. So in addition to running the cancer center I will be participating actively on both the clinical and research fronts.

In what ways will your involvement in both the clinical and research areas benefit you in your role as director?

I think it's very important that the director understand all facets of the cancer center. I am a clinician and a scientist, and I've had the experience of running a comprehensive cancer center before. I think that gives me a very good overview or big-picture approach to how a center should be organized and run. I know what it's like to take care of sick patients with cancer, and I know what works for them and what doesn't. I know what structures facilitate excellent patient care, and I'll try to promote their use and development at Maryland.

With my laboratory background, I think very practically about how to take a clinical problem I see every day as I'm caring for my patients, take it into a lab and begin to break it down to its cellular and molecular level, test hypotheses and translate the results into a new tool we can use to help patients, such as a new diagnostic test or therapy. That's really what a cancer center is about. It's very patient oriented; it's researchers and clinicians working together to create new clinical options for our patients through an ongoing collaborative approach that brings out the best in all of our faculty.

How would you describe your patient care philosophy?

Cancer care is a very multidisciplinary specialty, and requires a very strong team. You need surgeons, hematologists, oncologists, radiation therapists, outstanding nurses, social workers, palliative care specialists … there's a whole group of people that have to function as a team to provide optimal cancer care. The opportunity for Maryland is that wonderful examples of that already exist. The team approach to patient care is important and attractive to patients, because they know it's not up to them to sort out whether they need to have treatment A or B, but the team members are talking to each other, and they're making a concerted judgment on their behalf. This gives patients confidence that the team is working as a cohesive unit to provide them with the best care.

Given the high rate of cancer incidence and mortality in the Baltimore-Washington area, what can the UM Greenebaum Cancer Center do to help improve these statistics?

It is well known that the State of Maryland has the unflattering position of having one of the highest incident rates of cancer in the country. As the State of Maryland's cancer center, we have a special obligation to focus on those cancers that are having a major and in some cases disproportionate impact on Marylanders. At UMGCC, we also have some unique resources such as Dr. Claudia Baquet [Director of the Program in Cancer Prevention and Control Research at UMGCC and Associate Dean for Policy and Planning at the UM School of Medicine], who has developed statewide outreach programs that are giving us insight into the multifaceted cancer problems facing Marylanders.

Was the Cigarette Restitution Fund money an attraction in your coming to the UM Greenebaum Cancer Center?

Maryland has a tremendous advantage in that the Governor and Legislature have very wisely directed that a significant amount of the Cigarette Restitution Funds be used to promote and enhance cancer prevention, education, screening, research and clinical care. So the opportunity to have a leadership role in this continuing partnership with the State was very attractive to me. The State's commitment will also be extraordinary helpful in recruiting other outstanding faculty to the cancer center.

Talk about the plans to renovate the UM Greenebaum Cancer Center's inpatient and outpatient areas.

The hospital has committed to completely renovating both the outpatient and inpatient patient care areas over the next few years. The outpatient facility renovation will begin fairly soon, and is expected to be completed within 18 months. This is going to provide an easy access, state-of-the-art, very patient- and family-friendly environment for patients to come and see their multidisciplinary team and receive their outpatient treatment.

The inpatient units will also be renovated to provide private rooms for all inpatients and really make it as attractive and comfortable an environment as we can. When people are diagnosed with cancer, they and their families are usually terribly stressed and frightened. Having a comfortable, warm environment for their treatment is very important and makes their life infinitely easier.

Do you see the UM Greenebaum Cancer Center and the Lombardi Cancer Center working together in the future?

I really view this as a great opportunity to foster collaboration between our two institutions both in terms of basic and clinical research. There are strengths of the two centers which complement each other, and one of my goals will be to get these two centers working together closely to promote research and patient care in the entire Baltimore-Washington area.

You were involved in the renewal of Georgetown's comprehensive cancer center status. How will this experience help you in having the UM Greenebaum Cancer Center achieve the same designation?

That experience gave me firsthand knowledge of what's involved in that process. The key is to develop a very tightly integrated, balanced cancer center, so that the clinicians are talking and working with the basic scientists and the research you're doing in the laboratory complements what's being done in the clinical arena.

A director must foster an atmosphere where those collaborative interactions are the norm. Then it becomes fun. Then you start to attract both top-notch scientists and more patients. Someone who has been diagnosed with cancer quickly learns that they get the best care at such a place. I think the future of the UMGCC is extremely bright.

This page was last updated on: July 21, 2008.