Photo: From left are Steve Gruber, director of the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center at the Keck School of Medicine, USC trustee Harlyne J. Norris and Keck School Dean Carmen A. Puliafi to at a Nov. 14 welcome dinner in Gruber’s honor.
Stephen B. Gruber, a renowned physician-scientist from the University of Michigan, formally assumed the position of director of the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center at the Keck School of Medicine of USC on Dec. 1. Gruber is a medical oncologist, cancer geneticist and epidemiologist whose research focuses on genetic and environmental contributions to cancer. The Weekly recently sat down with him for a conversation reﬂecting on his vision for the future of the cancer center and patient care.
Q: What initially interested you about the position at USC?
A: I am a medical oncologist and cancer geneticist who has been committed to advancing the care of patients and families with cancer for my entire career. One of the ways I think we can do that best is in the setting of fundamental research that provides us with more ability to take care of patients and those families. Recognizing that research is the foundation of all that we do in cancer care, I’ve really been looking for ways to conquer cancer by translating innovative research to patients. The Trojan Family allows me to do that best, and I’m really looking forward to this transformative opportunity here at the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center to really make a difference in the lives of our patients and families, as well as our research community.
There are 40 comprehensive cancer centers within the United States, and those are the critical places where cancer care and cancer research are going to be transformed for the entire world. USC Norris was established as an inaugural cancer center in the war on cancer. I am honored to lead the Norris into the next generation; it is an exciting challenge and opportunity.
We have an opportunity to really transform the institution, to take advantage of its current strengths in basic science and clinical care, and merge them in a way that we have yet to fully realize at USC. Clinical translational medicine has to be our key goal—that’s the fundamental principle that will drive our future. We have terrific basic science at USC, we have terrific patient care and we are making progress toward translational care.
I think we will not only transform our vision for how USC builds its cancer care, both in terms of its physical capacity and in terms of the ways we think, we recruit, and we identify transformative scientists and clinicians who can change the way cancer care is provided.
Q: What aspect of your research do you find most compelling?
A: What we are finding is that the cancer genome provides insights for understanding the pathogenesis of cancer—the reasons why cancer develops and what drives cancer—and how we actually take care of patients who have cancer. How do we select the best drugs, why do we choose a drug that will work well in one patient and avoid drugs that can cause harm or simply don’t work? Much of that is actually driven by genomics and by understanding the genomic landscape of a cancer within a patient.
All of the genetic variations that define the growth advantages of a cancer cell can also lead to the best way to optimize care for that patient. We now have the tools to take advantage of this information in ways that were previously inconceivable.
USC has had strength in epigenetics for decades. Being able to merge what we know of the sequence of the human genome, as well as the regulation of the genome through epigenetic mechanisms, gives us an opportunity to do things that we have not been able to do before.
My research has always focused on cancer care for patients and populations. As a practicing physician, it has been critical for me to gain insights from the patients that we see in clinic. But in addition, we really want to understand the distribution of cancer within the population.
We cannot just take care of patients one at a time, but we also need to make fundamental insights and discoveries that allow us to dramatically reduce the burden of cancer in the population.
Q: What are your impressions of the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center and its history?
A: The legacy of the accomplishments of Norris is firmly established. It’s done much of the work to define care for a number of cancer systems, including renal cell carcinoma, breast cancer, prostate cancer and GI cancer. That legacy leaves an important impression for me, but also a sense of responsibility that we can build on that legacy in a way that will lead us to innovation.
Q: What is your vision for the future of USC Norris?
A: The future of the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center can best be defined by an unequivocal commitment to cutting-edge research that transforms clinical care. While our vision will be set through a strategic planning process, the priorities for the cancer center are to invest in research in a way that transforms clinical care. We will provide the infrastructure that facilitates those discoveries and the highest quality of care available to cancer patients in the United States and the world.
Q: How does your combined expertise as a clinician and researcher influence how you approach this position?
A: I am fortunate to be able to take advantage of clinical insights to drive my own research agenda, yet also to understand what is really important to patients. Patients want to make sure they are receiving the best care available anywhere. The Norris Cancer Center is that place. As I see patients
from a clinical perspective, it’s a profound benefit to my own research to be able to understand what are the key questions that are not yet answered and where we have an opportunity to invest, to close those gaps and improve care. And from the research side, it’s helpful to know that the fundamental insights into mechanisms of cancer, as well as the distribution of the disease throughout the population, can change the way we actually care for patients. These are the discoveries that will lead to new drug development and better care for cancer patients and populations.
Q: What role do you see yourself playing in the growth of our academic medical center?
A: Hopefully, my role will be to facilitate the development of cancer care across the institution, to help our outstanding faculty achieve their dreams and aspirations for fulfilling their research goals and to help our clinicians and physician scientists translate that information into cancer care. There is no question that USC can be the destination of choice for cancer care in the United States.