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Herberman steps down at Pittsburgh Cancer


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Herberman steps down at Pittsburgh Cancer Institute

Saturday, January 31, 2009

By Steve Twedt, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Ronald Herberman -- ex-director, Pittsburgh Cancer InstituteDr. Ronald Herberman arrived in Pittsburgh in 1985 to a small office in Eye & Ear Hospital in Oakland, a staff of two and Senior Vice Chancellor Dr. Thomas Detre's vision of building a cancer institute.

As Dr. Herberman steps down this weekend as director of the Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, he leaves behind a program that has done groundbreaking work in cancer, ranging from improved treatment to prevention and early detection.

PCI now employs 3,000, has 41 UPMC community-based cancer centers in Western Pennsylvania, plus one each in West Virginia and Ohio, and is ranked 10th nationally in funding from the National Cancer Institute.

In an interview in his fifth floor office across from the Hillman Cancer Center, Dr. Herberman recalled the highlights and challenges of the past 24 years.

Long before the first earthmover pushed the first pile of dirt to begin construction of the gleaming building that now sits on Centre Avenue in Shadyside, Dr. Herberman said he faced his own turf battles.

In 1985, the six university-affiliated hospitals in Oakland were as likely to compete as cooperate with each other, he said. Dr. Herberman, who came here from NCI as an acclaimed scientist, thought it made sense to set up a Department of Oncology. Dr. Detre had a different idea. He wanted an institute that was multidisciplinary, multischool, multihospital -- and nationally recognized.

"What he did tell me was that he was tired of being embarrassed when friends asked him where to go for cancer care, and he would tell them some center outside of Pittsburgh. He said there were no centers like the one he wanted to build," Dr. Herberman said.

To accomplish that, though, meant pushing against decades of inertia.

"He told me this is going to be tough to figure out because the department chairmen feel they have their own area of control, and to get them to accept the idea of something that extends across all disciplines would be very foreign to them," Dr. Herberman said. "I had a number of times where it wasn't clear what the outcome was going to be. At times, I thought [trying to start a cancer institute] was really a mistake, that this was much more than I bargained for."

In less than three years, though, the Pittsburgh Cancer Institute had earned special NCI designation, which meant prestige as well as a $1 million annual support grant.

Dr. Herberman counts as critical the arrival of his first clinical oncology recruit, Dr. John Kirkwood, a leading melanoma researcher who is still with the cancer institute and has done groundbreaking work with interferon, a protein that stimulates a patient's immune system.

He also cites PCI's research to improve treatments for lung cancer and head and neck cancers. An important physical manifestation of the institute was the opening of the Hillman Center in 2002.

More recently, Dr. Herberman's focus has shifted more toward the prevention and early detection of cancers, and the center has "very promising" progress in early detection of ovarian cancer.

Not that his work has always been encouraging. In 1994, Dr. Herberman was directed by NCI officials to temporarily take the reins of the Pittsburgh-based National Surgical Adjuvant Breast and Bowel Project as the U.S. House's energy and commerce subcommittee, chaired by Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., investigated allegations of falsified data by a Montreal physician in the group.

Dr. Herberman now refers to that period as "by far the worst year that I've had in my entire professional career." Almost no one, including him, was happy about the move. "On a personal level, I had to devote the majority of my time, seven days a week, to deal with the issues that were arising. I wasn't able to effectively run the cancer institute that year," he said. "It was also very sad to see someone as renowned as [the project's Chairman Dr.] Bernie Fisher and [chief statistician] Carol Redmond become casualties related to this."

Ultimately, Dr. Fisher was cleared, and "the good news was that his reputation has been completely rehabilitated," Dr. Herberman said. But he acknowledged the two remain distant. "I don't think Dr. Fisher has talked to me since."

Starting next week, Dr. Herberman takes the title of director emeritus and senior adviser to the new PCI director, Dr. Nancy Davidson. He is moving to an office one floor lower, where he plans to do his own research.

His workweek will be just as long, he said, but will comprise much more science and far fewer meetings.

"I'm really looking forward to that."

Steve Twedt can be reached at stwedt@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1963.

First published on January 31, 2009 at 12:00 am

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