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New Cancer Center head: ‘aspire to cure cancers’

Photo by New Haven Register
Thomas Lynch at the new Smilow Cancer Hospital, slated to open this fall.

Thomas J. Lynch Jr., M.D., an alumnus of Yale College and the School of Medicine who is renowned for his research on the relationship between genetic variations and the effectiveness of cancer therapies, has been named director of Yale Cancer Center (YCC) and physician-in-chief of the new Smilow Cancer Hospital, which will open in October 2009. YCC is southern New England’s only comprehensive cancer center designated by the National Cancer Institute and one of only 40 in the nation.

At a February reception marking his appointment, Lynch urged his new School of Medicine colleagues to think big. “I think we need to aspire to cure cancers, not just to help people live a bit longer,” Lynch said. “We need to actually say, ‘We’re going to increase the cure rate of women with breast cancer, of men with lung cancer or prostate cancer, of men and women with colon cancer.’ And I can’t think of a better place than Yale Cancer Center to begin that process.”

Lynch comes to Yale from Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), where he was professor of medicine and chief of hematology/oncology at MGH Cancer Center. “Tom is an incredibly dynamic thinker and leader,” says Dean Robert J. Alpern, M.D., Ensign Professor of Medicine. “He brings enormous vision and experience in cancer care, research, and education. We needed someone who knows what we need to do and with a vision to take us there, and Tom’s that person.”

An authority on lung cancer, Lynch has conducted dozens of studies of how small differences in patients’ genomes, or in the genetic makeup of tumors, can have a significant impact on the success of anti-cancer agents.

For example, in 2008, the Journal of Clinical Oncology published the results of a multicenter clinical trial led by Lynch which showed that lung cancer patients with mutations in a gene known as EGFR did twice as well after treatment with the drug gefenitib (Iressa) than do patients in the general population after standard chemotherapy.

Lynch believes that such research will make “personalized” therapy for many more cancers available very soon. “There are several reasons why this is so important,” he says. “First, patients want drugs that work. Second, insurance companies and society want to pay for drugs that are given to patients whom they will benefit, —they want to pay for things that actually make a big difference.”

Lynch will also oversee a new institute for cancer biology at Yale’s 136-acre West Campus, for which he will recruit a director and senior and junior scientists in the fields of cell signaling, cancer immunology, and drug development.

As a founder of the Boston-based Kenneth B. Schwartz Center for the Promotion of Caregiver/Patient Relations, Lynch says he believes the very best care for cancer patients is as important as cutting-edge research, and that he will continue to focus on patient care at Yale.

“We’re delighted that Dr. Lynch will provide the medical leadership that interweaves clinical expertise with compassionate, family-centered care for our patients,” says Marna P. Borgstrom, M.P.H., CEO and president of Yale-New Haven Hospital. Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven, opening this fall, is expected to become the most comprehensive cancer care facility in New England.

Lynch received his undergraduate degree from Yale College in 1982 and his medical degree from the School of Medicine in 1986. He completed his internship and residency at MGH, and after completing a fellowship in medical oncology at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, joined the MGH medical staff in 1993.

“For far too long,” Lynch says, “we’ve accepted very modest gains as being triumphs in cancer therapy, but patients and family members want to know, ‘Can I be cured of this?’ We need to rededicate our efforts to make major advances in cancer therapy.”