For Thomas J. Lynch Jr., M.D. ’86, director of Yale Cancer Center and physician-in-chief at Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven, the new building makes cancer personal on three levels. It provides “a warm and comfortable environment for patients.” The location of specialists in team suites allows for multidisciplinary, patient-centered care. But the biggest innovation may be microscopic. Physicians will be able to do molecular profiling rapidly—a rarity even in the most sophisticated cancer centers. This technology will allow them to plan treatment suited to the genetic signature of each patient’s cancer. Combine that with information about a patient’s general health and history, and the result is personalized medicine—a treatment plan for one specific patient.
These therapies hold the promise of greater effectiveness in killing cancer cells while reducing the side effects of treatment. Lynch’s enthusiasm for personalized medicine springs from 25 years as an oncologist specializing in lung cancer and his dissatisfaction with the range of therapies available to his patients. He deems the past few decades’ advances in cancer treatment only “modest.” The chance to make major strides against the disease through the combination of top-flight research and clinical programs is what drew the native Bostonian back to Yale.
Lynch returned to New Haven in April 2009 with the goal of making Yale a leader in personalized medicine in both research and clinical care. Lynch formerly worked and taught at Harvard, where he was a professor of medicine and chief of hematology/oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Cancer Center. He also directed the Center for Thoracic Cancers at MGH and was director of medical oncology at the MGH Thoracic Oncology Center. Lynch led teams that made discoveries in targeted therapies in lung cancer and has published widely. He also maintained a clinical practice and hopes to continue doing so in New Haven.
He is one of the founders of the Boston-based Kenneth B. Schwartz Center and now serves as chair of its board of directors. Lynch pioneered the Schwartz Center Rounds, in which multidisciplinary teams discuss the social and emotional issues that arise in patient care.
His plans for personalized medicine at Yale are linked to the new West Campus research facility on the Orange-West Haven border. The complex, purchased from Bayer in 2007, gave the university 400,000 square feet of research space that will include a cancer biology institute. “It’s Smilow and West Campus,” said Lynch. “You can’t do one without the other.”
Lynch foresees a rigorous program of research to match a growing list of specific genetic signatures with treatments tailored to be effective against them. This is the best hope, he believes, for improving outcomes in solid tumors, the cancers in which medicine currently has the least success. The marriage of Smilow and West Campus promises to take discoveries from the bench to the bedside more quickly. The hospital will have a team devoted to phase 1 clinical trials so that patients get the most comprehensive support possible and so that data collection is enhanced.
“If what we do in 25 years is practice the same oncology we’re practicing now, we haven’t achieved the promise of Smilow,” said Lynch.