New GHSU cancer center director talks about goals

Dr. Samir Khleif, director of the Georgia Health Sciences University Cancer Center is pursuing a National Cancer Institute Cancer Center designation.

In the midst of his second day on the job, the new director of the Georgia Health Sciences University Cancer Center was talking years down the road, and internationally, about the effort to bring a National Cancer Institute Cancer Center designation.


It is something Dr. Samir N. Khleif knows a little bit about, having just come from the institute and having created the King Hussein Cancer Center and King Hussein Institute for Biotechnology and Cancer in Jordan. Khleif is bolstered by Gov. Nathan Deal, who put $5 million in his budget request for next fiscal year to help the center toward that goal.

“This gesture by the governor sends a message of the seriousness of this,” Khleif said. “And it sends a message of his interest, which is, from our perspective, extremely supportive. It gives us a tremendous amount of push.”

The average time it takes for a center to achieve that designation is eight years, but the way the center will get there is just as important, he said.

“I’m not minimizing the designation itself, but also as important is the process that you go through.” Khleif said.

It is a matter of building up not only research programs, but also collaborations that translate into better care in the clinic and make a difference in the community, he said.

“That is really one of the most important things we will have to do is how we can engage the public in what we are doing, how we can provide the public with what they need to know and provide them with access to information that they cannot have otherwise,” Khleif said.

When the Winship Cancer Institute at Emory University submitted its 1,200-page application in 2008 and subsequently received its National Cancer Institute designation, it was the culmination of years of work to improve, said Executive Director Walter Curran.

“What it’s really done is help legitimize the efforts that have literally been going on for decades here at Emory to strengthen both the cancer care delivery and the cancer research in all realms to be at the outstanding level,” he said. “It’s been a very energetic process over the last few years, growth in the clinical trials, growth in the population science and the translational science.”

It has also helped Winship boost its institute funding from $24.3 million in 2008 to $29.5 million in 2011. When the Medical University of South Carolina Hollings Cancer Center got its designation around the same time, it went from $12.1 million in 2008 total institute funding to $17.3 million in 2011. Institute funding at GHSU is about $7.2 million.

Khleif said he wants to build on the strengths the GHSU cancer center already has in the areas of immunotherapy, molecular medicine, genomics/cell signaling and vascular biology.

“We’re going to be building multidisciplinary teams, which means organ-based teams that include all of the clinical disciplines and support, etc., but also, each of those teams will have basic scientists,” he said. “So in this case, those teams are together, they meet, they discuss, they talk, they know each other. So the translation between lab and clinic becomes way easier.”

That is an advantage coming into a program, Curran said.

“Oftentimes, that is an opportunity to see what scientific talent there is at an institution that currently may not be applied to helping solve challenges in oncology but, with the right motivation and opportunity, could be,” he said.

Khleif already has one new recruit and is looking for early stage clinical trial expertise as he also builds on putting all cancer services into a single service line. Having the resources to sustain two National Cancer Institute centers in Georgia will be up to the state’s leadership, Curran said, and it will also take commitment from GHSU leadership.

“For GHSU to be successful, there probably has to be a clear commitment at the highest level that the cancer program under Dr. Khleif is one of the highest two or three priorities,” Curran said.