Not his first rodeo — new cancer center director sizes up challenges

August 17, 2020
Dr. Raymond DuBois sits at his desk in his office
Dr. Raymond DuBois' new dual role as director of MUSC Hollings Cancer Center and dean of MUSC College of Medicine will benefit patient care and treatment. Photo by Sarah Pack

When asked what would surprise people to know about him, Raymond N. DuBois, M.D., Ph.D., pauses to consider and then shares a moment from his past that has shaped him.

He went to college at Texas A&M University on a Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo scholarship, which paid his full tuition for four years. During his time in high school, he had shown several animals at the local livestock show and in Houston.

“My junior year, my steer was selected as a grand champion in a regional show, and my other steers placed in the Houston Livestock show as well. Because of that, I applied for the scholarship and was awarded one of four such scholarships given in the state of Texas that year,” he recalled. “Otherwise, I would have never found a way to go to college. That taught me that you never know when an opportunity will present itself out of the blue, and you’d better take advantage of it when something does pop up.”

Raymond DuBois stands with one of his steers at a livestock show 
In high school, DuBois entered several prize-winning steers in Texas livestock shows. Photo provided

He has followed that mantra throughout his life, even now, as he steps up to the role today as director of MUSC Hollings Cancer Center. He will assume this position in addition to being dean of MUSC College of Medicine, where he has served for more than four years. The physician-scientist brings more than 30 years of research experience to this new role, with more than 20 years of concurrent experience in leadership at nationally renowned academic health systems.

Here, he reflects on what led him on this path, how it reveals a true calling and how the dual position sets him on a solid trajectory to lead Hollings, the only National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center in South Carolina, on a path to comprehensive status.

Q: What drew you to this role as director?

First and foremost, I have spent my academic career focusing on cancer, particularly translational cancer research — how to take discoveries from the bench to the bedside. Previously, I directed the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center in Nashville and served as executive vice president for Cancer Research and Education at MD Anderson in Houston, so when this position was offered to me, I was not intimidated by the scope of the job. Also, importantly, Hollings Cancer Center has a solid brand in the global world of cancer care and research, and that needs to be maintained and strengthened. I thought I could bring my past experience in this field to aid in bolstering that reputation.

Q: What are the advantages of retaining your position as dean to serve a dual role?

The MUSC College of Medicine and MUSC Hollings Cancer Center, while two separate entities, are closely aligned in their missions to bring the best medicine forward and employ breakthrough discoveries to improve patient care. Cancer patients are not in an isolated world by themselves — they usually have other medical issues related to drug side effects, psychological stress, preexisting conditions, etc. I think my dual role will help as we strive to treat the entire person, not just the “cancer patient.” If I can keep my finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the College of Medicine, as well as at Hollings, it will benefit both areas and our patients. Synergy can be a force multiplier.

Q: When have you undertaken similar large responsibilities in your past and how did you manage that?

It is a lot of work — I’m not going to lie. On the other hand, I enjoy big challenges. For example, at MD Anderson, I oversaw the research enterprise, the education and training programs and the global academic programs. I was on the run all the time, all over the world. The advantage of my wearing all three hats was that we could create crucial interactions between basic research, clinical research and clinical training and establish collaborations in these areas with global partners.

What I’m most looking forward to in my dual roles here at MUSC is to feel that I’m making a positive impact in the field of medicine. But it’s not like I’m doing this alone. We have a great team of department chairs and faculty at MUSC, working at both Hollings and in other areas of medicine. Hollings has a seasoned leadership team in place. They are the experts on the front lines. I just have to do what I can to make their jobs easier, fulfilling and productive.

“Hollings has a seasoned leadership team in place. They are the experts on the front lines. I just have to do what I can to make their jobs easier, fulfilling and productive.”
— Dr. Raymond DuBois

Q: What drew you to cancer research?

I started out my Ph.D. program in biochemistry and loved laboratory research. But along the way, I really wanted to know how my discoveries would affect real people suffering from real diseases. So, I went to medical school after I finished my doctorate but still continued my interest in molecular biology by working in the lab whenever I could. It was in medical school that I became intrigued by cancer research — particularly of the gastrointestinal system. Why do seemingly healthy cells suddenly get out of control? What happens on the molecular level to induce uncontrolled cell growth and metastatic spread of disease?

Q: What is your proudest accomplishment in this field?

Back in the early-to-mid 1990s, I was one of the early researchers working on the mechanistic relationship between inflammation and cancer. Decades later, that may seem rather passé, but it led to the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin and other medications for preventing certain cancers, including preventing recurrence. It also helped to pave the way for the recent rebirth of cancer immunology for treating certain cancers through immunotherapy.

Beyond my research role, I am proudest of some of the mentoring programs I’ve set up at MD Anderson and here. My goal at all of the institutions that I have served has been to recruit young academic physicians and help them to establish themselves and succeed in translational cancer research.

Q: How would you describe your role with Stand Up to Cancer (SU2C), and how will this organization be a game changer in the fight against cancer?

I have served in an advisory role for the SU2C Foundation since it was first established over a decade ago. I was incoming president of the American Association for Cancer Research, AACR, the scientific partner of SU2C, when the SU2C founders had an idea for a new way to support cancer research. Also, early on, my laboratory was supported by Katie Couric, a co-founder of SU2C. SU2C has been funding cancer research for over 12 years now, and we had no idea at the time it would become the juggernaut it is today. I have continued to serve as a scientific advisor in various capacities throughout the years, and today, I direct its Catalyst Program, a new way to launch clinical trials in immunotherapy with industry partners. Because my research focus is cancer prevention, I also work in the Cancer Interception and Prevention initiative. And, I sit on committees to review certain grant applications from its research teams.

SU2C was started as a vision by a group of women associated with Hollywood who had been personally affected by cancer. From personal experiences, they were frustrated by the slow process involved in getting new discoveries made in the lab into usable treatments for patients. So, they decided that things would move faster if scientists from different academic institutions — even from competing labs — formed “dream teams” to accelerate the practical application of their findings. In the last 12 years, SU2C has funded or co-funded over 180 clinical trials, with pledges of about $603 million to support the work of over 1,600 scientists in scores of dream teams. These include any number of breakthrough studies. I am proud and humbled to be associated with both AACR and SU2C.

One thing I like about the SU2C model is that it’s flexible. We noticed there was a need for brain cancer research, for example, and a call went out for applications to form a dream team in that field. Most recently, SU2C is addressing economic and racial disparities in cancer care and is now calling for applications to fund a Health Equity in Cancer research dream team to improve outcomes in minority patients. Those are just two examples.

Q: How do you see Hollings becoming a stronger cancer center in the future?

Right now, Hollings is one of the smaller NCI-designated cancer centers in the country. We definitely need to expand staffing so that specialists caring for certain kinds of cancer patients have more backup and support. We also need to expand our reputation beyond South Carolina and the Southern region in order to have a larger presence nationally and globally in cancer research and care. 

Q: What are the main challenges to be addressed?

Money and funding are always a challenge. Cancer research and patient care are outrageously expensive but worth it because they save lives. In my lifetime, a diagnosis of cancer went from essentially being an automatic death sentence to a manageable disease in some cases. Right now, there are more patients surviving cancer than dying from it. But needless to say, we still have a long, long way to go in cancer prevention, treatment and survival.

Q: You’ve held a variety of impressive positions before you came to MUSC. How have they prepared you for this moment of leadership?

Well, as we used to say in Texas, “This ain’t my first rodeo.” Many of the issues that have arisen at Hollings are ones that I’ve seen before — a national financial crisis, hurricanes, staffing shortages, fundraising needs and funding for research advancements. I am lucky in that we have a great team in place already. We just need to boost Hollings’ brand, the public’s awareness and the cancer center’s operations so that more patients can be seen and get the treatments they need when they need them. Because South Carolina has a large rural population, sometimes it’s difficult for patients to have to come to downtown Charleston for their cancer care. This means we have some outreach issues we need to figure out and outpatient clinics we need to grow a bit. We need more investigator-initiated trials, which will require the recruitment of certain types of additional faculty.

Q: Many people are unaware that Hollings is an NCI-designated cancer center. How would you explain the importance of that and the impact that has for the state?

Hollings is one of 71 NCI-designated cancer centers around the country, which means it is recognized for its scientific leadership, resources and discoveries in basic science, clinical research, cancer control and/or population science. This puts it a step above any other cancer care delivery institution in the state in terms of cutting-edge research and patient care. Our next mission is to try to bring Hollings into comprehensive cancer center status. To reach that status, we will need even more resources, treatment options and transdisciplinary research programs that bridge numerous scientific disciplines. It’s a huge goal, but it’s one that will really make Hollings a bright star in the cancer care world — joining a group that includes cancer centers at Duke, UNC, Wake Forest, Vanderbilt, Moffit in Tampa and Winship at Emory.

“Sometimes you just have to stay focused on your goal and go for it. Make a few wrong turns, ask for advice, trust your instincts and basically don’t stop until you get to where you need to go.”
— Dr. Raymond DuBois

Q: How would you describe your leadership style?

I usually avoid micromanagement if at all possible. The people who report to me are professionals, experts in their areas, and I expect them to do their jobs and to report to me when they run into problems. I also love to hear about and celebrate their successes and achievements. Because I come from a scientific background, I’m a big fan of teamwork and collaboration. I also expect those who report to me to include an element of mentorship in their jobs. This is an academic institution, and we need to prepare the next generation to take over and succeed if we are to keep the institution viable in the future.

Q: What do you do for fun?

My wife and I love to travel and explore natural places. We have been to all seven continents and most of the states in the U.S. I also am a huge sports fan, so the pandemic has really put a damper on any leisure hours I want to spend as a couch potato.

Q: What’s your favorite quote or mantra that you live by?

My kids tease me that my mantra is, “I don’t know exactly where we’re going, but we’re heading north!” When they were young, before GPS, I was driving my daughter to a ballgame out in the middle of nowhere Tennessee, and I got lost trying to find the gym. She and my son asked me if I knew where I was going. I laid my foot on the accelerator and shouted to them in the back seat, “I don’t know where we’re going, but we’re heading north!” Somehow I found the gym, and my daughter made it to her game on time. So, I think that’s my mantra. Sometimes you just have to stay focused on your goal and go for it. Make a few wrong turns, ask for advice, trust your instincts and basically don’t stop until you get to where you need to go. On a more serious note, I am a fan of the mantra “onward and upward,” which often was used by one of my former mentors during my early days at Vanderbilt.