Jul 17, 2015 -
This is the third in a periodic Front Line series profiling SWOG's Executive Officers, which I hope will give you some insight into why I selected each to be part of my advisory and leadership teams. This week I feature Dr. Christopher Ryan, Executive Officer for genitourinary and gastrointestinal cancers and melanoma, as well as the experimental therapeutics/rare cancers program.
First, you should know Dr. Chris Ryan likes a challenge, and he likes variety. That is why he personally has expertise in treating sarcomas, extremely rare connective tissue cancers, as one of his specialties. It's why he earned the first NCI Cancer Clinical Investigator Team Leadership Award for mid-career researchers. It's why he wrestles with the elusive steelhead trout every fall while fly-fishing the Deschutes River here in Oregon. And it's why he's taken on not one but four (!) Executive Officer areas at SWOG -- including melanoma, a cancer he does not personally treat or do research on himself.
You should know courage and competence are hallmarks of Dr. Ryan's leadership. A professor of medicine at Oregon Health & Science University, Dr. Ryan became involved in cancer clinical trials as a 33-year-old fresh out of fellowship at the University of Chicago. He had a pretty good mentor -- former ASCO president and cooperative group Chair Dr. Richard Schilsky -- who encouraged him to get involved in the Cancer and Leukemia Group B (CALGB), now part of the Alliance. Dr. Ryan not only got involved, he jumped in as its solitary EO and served for three years.
In 2003, Dr. Ryan joined SWOG and helped work on S0033, the randomized phase III trial dose-testing imatinib, in patients with advanced metastatic gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GIST). Dr. Ryan recalls one of his Chicago patients enrolled in the trial, a young woman with a frighteningly huge abdominal GIST. She was dying. With Gleevec, her tumor shrank both quickly and dramatically. Sadly she was not one of the long-term survivors on the trial; his patient succumbed to her cancer about three years later. Still he was not discouraged. "I saw the research translated into something tangible," he said this week. "And the work became very real to me. Now I work with a lot of patients with kidney cancer. There were (previously) no effective treatments for advanced kidney cancer, but we've seen seven new drugs approved in about the last 10 years. And these targeted therapies are making a difference. New medicines inspire me. I can't imagine practicing oncology without pursuing research."
As an EO, Dr. Ryan currently oversees more than 30 active SWOG trials, including roughly a dozen of his own. He described the EO role as providing high-level guidance on design, operations, and regulatory issues -- although he relishes rolling up his sleeves and getting into nitty-gritty like appropriate and useful eligibility criteria. After enrolling a few hundred patients onto studies over the course of his career, Dr. Ryan knows better now what works -- and what doesn't.
The role of mentor is also one he enjoys. Supporting up-and-coming researchers -- he teaches part of SWOG's annual Young Investigator Training Course -- is another satisfying and promising way to fight cancer.
Dr. Ryan gives us the quote of the week. "Cancer always has new ideas," he says. "So we always need new ideas, too."