David C. Linehan, M.D., chose to focus on a very difficult cancer for his life’s work.
Not only does cancer of the pancreas require a challenging and technically demanding surgery, but it also strikes worry that new treatments are not coming fast enough.
“It’s a recalcitrant disease and so much work needs to be done to improve outcomes,” Linehan says.
In taking on pancreatic cancer, Linehan lives by the sense of urgency that pancreatic patients feel — and has developed an international reputation as a researcher and clinician for bringing innovative therapies to patient with difficult-to-treat cancers.
He joined the University of Rochester Medical Center in 2014 as the new Chair of Surgery. He also became one of Wilmot Cancer Institute’s co-directors and Director of Clinical Operations. In this dual-role, Linehan works closely with WCI Director Jonathan W. Friedberg, M.D., M.M.Sc., and fellow co-director Hartmut “Hucky” Land, Ph.D., who also serves as WCI’s Director of Research.
At Wilmot, Linehan helps lead the cancer center service line, an organizational structure that brings a team approach to cancer treatment rather than sending patients from one specialty to the next as in a traditional care model.
As a physician-researcher, Linehan bridges the clinic and the laboratory, and he is looking forward to building Wilmot’s strengths in solid tumor treatment and research.
“You need scientists who think in terms of really trying to nail down the biological mechanisms of how things work, and the clinicians who know what the unmet clinical needs are,” Linehan says. “If you align the two, you get much better treatments for patients and an understanding of why things work and why they don’t work.”
This intersection of science and medicine is crucial for the patients that Linehan sees.
“In pancreas cancer, patients don’t have the luxury of 10 years of research coming down the pike and then getting approval,” Linehan says.
“If there’s something promising and that has sound scientific rationale, bring it to the patients and do the preclinical work alongside it.”
Linehan and his colleagues are focusing on the tumor microenvironment — the normal cells, molecules and blood vessels that surround and feed a tumor cell.
In a pancreas tumor, the microenvironment is made up mostly of immune cells — not cancer cells. By studying the function of these immune cells, Linehan and his team found that there is active communication between the tumor and the bone marrow, where the immune cells are produced. They are now testing ways to interrupt that communication to slow or stop tumor growth.
“It offers another target,” Linehan says. “It’s another way of thinking about cancer therapy — attack the cancer cells but also the supporting cells.”
At Wilmot, Linehan is part of a progressive team, including Land and Aram Hezel, M.D., who are just as focused on defeating pancreatic cancer.
“We haven’t made much progress in 25 years,” Linehan says. “I think everybody with this disease should be in a clinical trial, and we always have to have trials to offer patients. That’s the direction we’re heading, and I’m honored for the opportunity to be at Wilmot, to work toward turning the tide on pancreas cancer and other tough malignancies.”