VOL. 9 | NO. 45 | Saturday, November 5, 2016
By Andy Meek
With the arrival of the holiday shopping season, dozens of major retailers – brands from Best Buy to Williams-Sonoma to Brooks Brothers and New York & Co. – as well as the consumers who patronize them will also be turning their attention to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
The 13th year of the “Thanks and Giving” campaign for the children’s hospital will give shoppers throughout November and December an opportunity to contribute to St. Jude’s mission in a variety of ways, depending on where they shop. Best Buy, for example, wants to build on the $10.2 million it raised for St. Jude last year and is letting customers give to the hospital through credit card signature pads or online at BestBuy.com.
At other retailers – like Ann Taylor, Kmart, Pottery Barn and The Limited – merchandise will be sold that directly benefits the hospital.
It’s become an annual holiday-focused fundraising tradition for the venerable Memphis health care institution, uniting retail and corporate partners among others to support the hospital’s mission of treating and defeating childhood cancers and other life-threatening diseases. And speaking of that mission – this year, the holiday campaign is capping a particularly transformative, consequential period for St. Jude, which is changing in ways big and small.
It’s in the process of a sweeping transformation of its campus as well as continuing to fine-tune its operation and strategic plan as part of St. Jude president and CEO Dr. James Downing’s vision of amplifying the hospital’s impact and influence both at home and around the world.
Part of that involves the addition of top-notch research talent. Downing, who is heading into his third year in the top job at the hospital, mused how it seems like small armies of new recruits are visiting the campus almost weekly now.
“The mission for me, first and foremost, is what we do on campus and what we do for our patients,” Downing said during a wide-ranging interview with The Memphis News. “It’s to make sure we have the absolute best facilities, the absolute best level of care and the absolute best supporting structure for the journey the patients and families are going through.
“The second thing is strengthening our lab research so that we have the engine of new creative ideas that will foster innovation in the way we treat patients. It’s recruiting in the right leadership for these departments. Because if not for St. Jude, who? And then we focus on those things only we can do.”
Among some of those decisions made this year:
• The hospital tapped Dr. James Morgan to be its new scientific director. Morgan, formerly chair of the Department of Developmental Neurobiology, will oversee St. Jude’s basic science programs and related research efforts.
• St. Jude and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in the U.K. agreed to share cancer mutation data to support the discovery and understanding of genetic mutations causing cancers. Among other things, that exchange will also mean information that’s freely available to researchers in all areas of science.
• St. Jude set up a new Patient and Family Experience Office and tapped Janice English as its director. In that role, she’ll help direct and enhance patients' and families' interactions with the hospital from their first contact until their last visit. The hospital is in the process of expanding at such a significant clip at the moment, it’s “important that we ensure the patient experience is our top priority,” English said of the new office.
• The hospital also began taking applications from potential students for its new on-campus biomedical sciences graduate school. The first class chosen from that pool of applicants will start its studies in August 2017 in a custom-designed space in the Marlo Thomas Center for Global Education and Collaboration.
BUSY 2016 AT ST. JUDE
“A lot of big things happened this past year,” Downing said. “Some of those, it’s really bringing them to maturity now and others are key things to occur in the next 12 months.”
He mentions the hospital’s proton therapy center, with its advanced form of radiation technology and a system that was designed, developed and implemented in partnership with Hitachi, as one example. The technology lets doctors use fine beams to precisely target cancer cells with high doses of radiation while sparing nearby cells and organs.
“That proton beam facility is now fully functional, and within the last several weeks we’ve initiated the full scope of therapies we can give with the proton beam,” Downing said. “Recently, we’ve started cranial spinal radiation using the proton beam facility, and some of the imaging modalities are really only coming up to their full level of service, so we’re slowly ramping up the number of patients treated in the facility. By the end of November, we’ll have treated 100 patients, which was our goal. That’s going to escalate in the range of 250 patients on a yearly basis.”
The first patients within the last several weeks, meanwhile, were also moved into new inpatient facilities – new floors within the seven-story St. Jude Kay Research and Care Center. Those new floors, Downing said, are “beyond state-of-the-art.”
“Another thing that was accomplished in the past 12 months that we’ll continue in a big way is our precision medicine initiative,” Downing said. “Our Genomes for Kids protocol has been open for coming up on a year, and we’ve learned a tremendous amount through that. We’ve expanded our infrastructure for doing that kind of analysis (of tumor cells). We’ve also established our cancer predisposition clinic, which is seeing somewhere shy of 600 patients a year now.”
Construction of a data center at the hospital has been wrapping up over the last several weeks. It will provide access to high-performance computing power to benefit things like St. Jude’s precision medicine and laboratory research efforts.
Meanwhile, Downing said St. Jude is recruiting a new chair of structural biology, a key position for the institution. That department will also then expand and get space to recruit new talent and will invest in capital equipment.
The hospital is also deep into planning for a new research building.
NEW WORLD VIEW
“Another effort that will really be gaining steam as we move forward over the next 12 months is our St. Jude global effort,” Downing said. “Starting in February, we started a strategic planning process. … It lays out a very ambitious effort that may take 10 years to realize. But it lays out a program that will change the focus of our global effort from a purely humanitarian effort to really an academic effort that will lay the groundwork and build the workforce to ultimately make sure every child with cancer across the globe has access to quality care.”
Here’s how. Obviously, St. Jude is resource-constrained in how much it can extend itself around the world. There’s only so much it can scale something like sending doctors and researchers and similar talent to other countries to make an impact.
So, the thinking goes, rather than extend smaller versions of St. Jude around the world, why not teach local populations how to use what they have to do the same thing themselves? It’s part of what’s perhaps the most important chapter yet being written in the St. Jude story.
Not just shoring up the hospital’s own expansive capabilities. But figuring out how it can use those capabilities to reach many millions more people around the world – and to teach people how to piggyback off of those efforts to expand St. Jude’s reach even more.
“Our current program touches about maybe 3 percent of the pediatric cancer patients in the world,” Downing said. “We want to move that to 30 percent in a five- to six-year window – so we’re talking about a massive growth in the impact of this program.”
One leg of that effort involves the requisite workforce training.
“That means developing a St. Jude global academy within the walls of St. Jude, where physicians, nurses, social workers, administrators can come to St. Jude and be taught how to establish the appropriate level of care within their region of the globe,” Downing said. “We’ll develop within our graduate program a master's of science in global medicine. It’ll be a two-year program.
“The second leg is to coordinate efforts across regions. We can’t just export what we do at St. Jude (to other regions). They don’t have the infrastructure, they don’t have the ability to do that. But they can deliver quality care that will significantly improve cure rates, and then they can figure out region by region how to continually improve that care. This will require many new staff members, many new faculty members, many new partnerships with things like the World Health Organization.”
The hoped-for payoff, of course, is more lives saved. But also that these efforts and more help put the hospital another step closer to fulfilling its mission – “advancing cures and means of prevention for pediatric catastrophic diseases through research and treatment.”