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Q&A: New UMMC Chair of Otorhinolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery (Oto-HNS) Discusses His Goals for Clinical Practice, Research and Education

Scott E. Strome, M.D.

Scott E. Strome, M.D.

Scott E. Strome, M.D., has been named chair of the Department of Otorhinolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery (Oto-HNS) at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and Chief of Otorhinolaryngology at the UM Medical Center. Dr. Strome, a head and neck surgical oncologist and fellowship trained microvascular surgeon, comes from the Mayo Clinic, where he was associate professor in the department of Oto-HNS and started the departmental free flap program for reconstructive surgery on head and neck cancer patients. Dr. Strome is a noted researcher, focusing mainly on the immunotherapy of head and neck cancer.

What appealed to you about coming to the University of Maryland?

There are several factors. First and foremost is the opportunity to build an outstanding translational research program to better the lives of patients. Dean Wilson (Donald E. Wilson, M.D., M.A.C.P., Dean & Vice President for Medical Affairs of the University of Maryland School of Medicine) and the School of Medicine have been very accommodating in providing space and support for Otorhinolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, allowing us to set up a suite for our core investigators and facilitate recruitment of the best clinicians and researchers from all over the world. Second, the University of Maryland Academic Health Center campus, which includes not only the School of Medicine but also the University of Maryland Greenebaum Cancer Center, the School of Pharmacy, and the School of Dentistry, creates extraordinary opportunities for both clinical and research collaboration – allowing us to advance the treatment of otorhinolaryngologic disease. Third, I have the opportunity to lead a program that already has many strengths including a highly skilled/dedicated faculty, excellent residents, and a devoted ancillary staff. On a personal note, most of my family lives on the East Coast, so I am happy to be moving back to the area.

What originally got you interested in cancer research?

I first became interested in research while I was in medical school at Harvard. I realized that we haven’t improved survival for patients with head and neck cancer in the past 30 years. I am very concerned that the next 30 years will not be any different if we stay on our present course. The survival rate for seriously ill patients with advanced head and neck cancer is approximately 50 percent. My goal in research is very simple -- to develop novel therapeutics which will have a positive impact on the lives of our patients.

You have developed a new vaccine for oral cancer. Can you explain a little bit about your research and how this came about?

I’m interested in the immunotherapy of head and neck cancer. We believe that the body’s own cells have the ability to fight off cancer, but they don’t do so in all settings. So, the fundamental question is why? A corollary to this question is how can we manipulate the body’s own immune system to fight cancer? A variety of approaches have been tried in recent years -- vaccines, different drugs -- but they’ve had limited efficacy. We’ve learned from each of these efforts. Based on the knowledge gained from our laboratory and many others working in the field, we are developing a two-tiered approach for the treatment of solid tumors. This approach is predicated on initial priming of the antitumor immune response with subsequent manipulation of defined molecular pathways to enhance therapeutic efficacy. While many others are working in the immunotherapy field, our research program has particular expertise in clinical translation -- bringing molecules from the discovery phase to the clinic.

In this regard, I have a National Institute of Health-funded peptide vaccine clinical trial for patients with unresectable disease, which is anticipated to open in early 2005. Additionally, we have a collaborative grant for clinical development of an antibody against a molecule that assists immune cells in fighting cancer. I anticipate bringing this to the clinic in 2006. We also have several molecules under active investigation in the preclinical stage. (I acknowledge that I have a financial conflict of interest with select molecules planned for clinical trials).

As you have learned, the University of Maryland has a major partnership with the State of Maryland through the Cigarette Restitution Fund Program (CRF) to help Marylanders fight cancer. What impact will this have on your department’s success?

The state of Maryland has been very fortunate to have visionary leaders who saw early on the value of channeling the majority of its CRF funding into fighting cancer and other tobacco-related diseases. Oral/head and neck cancer is one of the targeted cancers for the use of these funds. My colleagues around the country are aware of the approach Maryland has taken and hold the state in very high regard for its vision and commitment. More specifically, the investments made to build the research infrastructure and recruit and retain outstanding scientists and clinicians were also a major factor in my decision to bring my laboratory and my clinical practice to Maryland. I believe this breadth and depth will contribute directly to accelerating the discovery process. The result being more innovative treatment approaches will be made available to Marylanders faster.

What are your plans for further developing the Department of Otorhinolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery?

The central theme for the department is to create an environment in which research is seamlessly integrated into the practice of Oto-HNS. Clinical practice, research and education programs will be developed and grow around this foundation. We currently have an excellent faculty. I intend to expand this solid foundation in areas where there are major needs and/or opportunities for growth. For instance, I am already recruiting a skull base/sinus surgeon, two dedicated pediatric otorhinolaryngologists, and a physician specializing in disorders affecting the voice. Additionally, we are growing our program in facial plastic cosmetic and reconstructive surgery with the addition of an outstanding fellowship trained Oto-HNS facial plastic surgeon, Dr. Tom Le.

Community outreach will also be a priority. We plan to establish a free head and neck cancer screening day and to present educational talks throughout the community on prevention and treatment of head and neck cancer. We’re also very anxious to spread the news about the exciting clinical trials which will soon be open that give patients access to novel experimental therapies not available anywhere else.

On the research side, I plan to put together a program of people from diverse backgrounds with one common goal -- to better the lives of our patients. One of my first priorities will be to recruit some of the best immunologists and tumor biologists in the world, expanding our head and neck cancer initiatives. I am also planning to recruit a senior researcher interested in sensorineural hearing loss, to add to the existing research program in neuro-otology and audiology.

The third component of the academic mission is education. Indeed, our legacy as individuals and as a department will be judged by those who we train. It is my intent to foster the residency program – growing the program from excellent to outstanding. Achieving this goal will require dedicated faculty support in both teaching and an assessment/prediction of the skill sets residents will require to practice Oto-HNS in the future.

What goals do you have for patient care in head and neck oncology?

My number one priority for patient care is excellence – excellence cloaked in an environment of compassion. This has to be the unspoken rule and the absolute top priority for every single patient who walks through the door: to treat patients equally, with respect, and make sure that they receive the best care possible every single day. Also of major importance will be to continue to cultivate our relationships with our physician colleagues practicing in the community. Working in partnership with our colleagues in the community is essential to providing seamless care for our patients.

My own clinical practice is dedicated to head and neck surgical oncology. I have a particular interest in thyroid, salivary gland, and laryngeal malignancies. I am a trained microvascular surgeon and started the free flap program (for reconstructive surgery on head and neck cancer patients) in the department of Otorhinolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at Mayo Clinic. Additionally, I have an interest in seeing patients with unresectable/metastatic head and neck cancer who might benefit from participation in our clinical trials program.

This page was last updated on: June 6, 2008.