Incoming Hillman Cancer Center director Ferris aims to boost enrollment in clinical trials
Dr. Robert Ferris’s early interest in immunotherapy, now a leading-edge approach to cancer treatment, set the course of a career that next month will take him to the director’s job at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center.
Ferris, 49, of Fox Chapel was working on vaccines for HIV as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in the 1990s when the first antiretroviral drugs for the virus emerged, steering treatment away from immunotherapy.
Ferris shifted his focus to human papillomavirus, known as HPV, which Johns Hopkins researchers had discovered was linked to head and neck cancers.
“That’s what really stimulated it,” Ferris said of his decision to specialize in ear, nose and throat cancer. “… If we can’t vaccinate against HIV, how about immunotherapy against a virus-induced cancer.”
UPMC announced it is promoting Ferris on July 1 to director of the cancer center following a national search to replace former director Dr. Nancy Davidson. He is now chief of the Division of Head and Neck Oncologic Surgery in the departments of Otolaryngology and Immunology.
Ferris said he worked on HPV vaccines at UPMC from about 2001 to 2007, when the cancer center’s founding director, Dr. Ronald Herberman, asked him to co-direct a University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute program focused on cancer immunology.
Immunotherapy bolsters the body’s immune response to disease. It has shown promising results in a small percentage of cancer patients, sometimes extending lives far beyond what could be expected from the standard treatments of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation while causing fewer unpleasant side effects. The Food and Drug Administration approved the first cancer immunotherapy drug, ipilimumab, in 2011.
“When this field began to take off, Pittsburgh was well positioned, and I coincidentally was a program leader,” Ferris said. “So my career kind of rode along with the success of immunotherapy and all these new agents.”
Researchers have developed a childhood vaccine against HPV, but the virus and its list of associated cancers remain a focus for Ferris and others. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates HPV is responsible for about 27,000 new cancer diagnoses each year in the United States.
One of Ferris’s priorities is to push for bigger clinical trials to move new therapies from labs to doctors offices. He said he wants to make more clinical trials available across UPMC’s approximately 60 cancer treatment centers, reducing the number of patients who must drive to the flagship UPMC Shadyside facility to participate.
He said he plans to advocate for higher HPV vaccination rates in children — nationally, about six in 10 girls between 13 and 17 had been vaccinated and about five in 10 boys of the same age had been vaccinated as of 2015, according to the CDC.
Another big task will be renewing Hillman’s designation as one of the country’s 69 National Cancer Institute-designated centers, he said. The organization renews the designations every five years, and Hillman is up for renewal in 2020, Ferris said.
He said he plans to continue overseeing a research lab. He is not sure he will be able to continue his work on the Penguins medical staff, where he helped treat defenseman Olli Maatta’s thyroid cancer in 2014.
Ferris said he was born in Cleveland and raised in Orlando. He said his wife, who is a physician, was born in Allentown. The couple has three children in grades six through 10.