Pancreatic cancer surgeon scientist takes on deputy director role at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center

January 03, 2024
William Hawkins, MD, pancreatic cancer surgeon scientist
Dr. William Hawkins is a pancreatic cancer surgeon and researcher with a focus on improving survival rates for this cancer. Photo by Clif Rhodes

William Hawkins, M.D., never planned to be a surgeon.

“I grew up with this idea that surgeons were the ‘technicians’ and medical doctors were the ‘thinking’ doctors,” he said.

He attended medical school in the early ‘90s, when the Human Genome Project was getting started, and there was excitement in the air about the possibilities of decoding the mysteries of – and then curing – diseases like cancer.

But a surgeon mentor challenged his thinking.

“He asked me a simple question. He said, ‘What's the most effective therapy we have for cancer?’” Hawkins recalled. “And it remains true today. The most effective therapy we have for the majority of cancers is actually surgery. Catch it early and cut it out.”

“I decided to pick what was one of the most challenging cancers for my career, pancreatic cancer, because it was just a devastating cancer. I figured, ‘Well, if you're going to make a difference, pick something hard.’”

William Hawkins, M.D.
Deputy Director
MUSC Hollings Cancer Center

After a rotation in surgery, Hawkins was sold. After each surgery, he could feel he had accomplished something.

And yet – surgery can’t always cure cancer, particularly in Hawkins’ field.

“I decided to pick what was one of the most challenging cancers for my career, pancreatic cancer, because it was just a devastating cancer,” he said. “I figured, ‘Well, if you're going to make a difference, pick something hard.’”

Very quickly, Hawkins came to understand that surgeons were ‘thinking’ doctors, too. He began to conduct research, continually seeking ways to improve survival for people with pancreatic cancer, which currently has a 12.5% five-year survival rate. He noted that the five-year survival rate at the start of his career was 4%.

“If I were purely a technician … if I were doing purely what we already know to do to pancreas cancer, I would lose 80% of my patients for the rest of my life,” he said. “Well, that's not a very satisfying job.”

He’s spent almost 20 years at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and its Siteman Cancer Center, the last half of that time in leadership roles, including obtaining and directing a prestigious Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) grant to conduct multiple projects investigating pancreatic cancer.

Now, he’s bringing his clinical, research and leadership experience to MUSC Hollings Cancer Center to serve as deputy director, a newly created position intended to strengthen the center’s focus on translational research and to guide the daily clinical operations of the center, which grew from 111 doctors and researchers in 2018 to 130 in 2023 and more than doubled its number of publications in that time.

Hawkins said he’s eager to help to steer the center’s work.

“Washington University has been very, very good to me. But I was looking for something where I could try to help the team improve the impact they have on the outcome of cancer, not just in my own little niche but in a broader sense,” he said. “My impression of Hollings is that it’s really ready to grow exponentially, and it seemed like an exciting time to be part of that institution.”

New deputy director for Hollings Cancer Center

Hollings director Raymond N. DuBois, M.D., Ph.D., is glad for Hawkins’ assistance. Hollings is the only National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center in South Carolina and one of only 72 in the nation. The designation indicates that Hollings has met rigorous expectations for its research as well as its community outreach and training of future doctors and researchers. The designation requires an in-depth review every five years, which Hollings has just completed.

DuBois has made no secret that he wants Hollings to achieve comprehensive cancer center status, which requires an even higher level of scrutiny, at its next review in 2028. Comprehensive cancer centers must show an additional depth and breadth of research as well as strong transdisciplinary research that brings together basic science, the type of science that investigates cellular biology; clinical science, which includes human research; population science, which looks at broad trends at the population level; and cancer prevention.

“Bill Hawkins is the right man at the right time for Hollings as we set out to attain comprehensive cancer center status, which would be a confirmation of the quality of work happening here. Bill is an accomplished surgeon, a dedicated researcher; he gets things done and is a leader with a track record of connecting clinicians and researchers across disciplines,” DuBois said.

Pancreatic cancer research

Hawkins completed a research fellowship at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center after his residency and continued some research through his fellowship in surgical oncology, but he got his start as an independent researcher in 2005 with his first grant, awarded by the then still-new Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, or PanCAN.

His first project looked at using DNA vaccination to help the immune system to attack a specific protein found on the surface of pancreatic cancer cells.

Two decades and more than 200 publications later, his lab is a leading research group focused on two potential avenues to attack pancreatic cancer – metabolism and the immune system.

Cancer cells burn energy at a faster rate, Hawkins explained – like race cars. That creates two possible paths for using that fast metabolism against them.

"You actually drive them to their death by having them burn out, by accelerating that pathway. Or you can shut down that metabolism; normal cells can compensate for that, whereas cancerous cells have already shut down some of those compensatory mechanisms, and so, when you take away this energy rich fuel, they wither and die,” he said.

Alternatively, his lab continues to investigate vaccine-type methods to give the immune system some help in doing its job.

"We make personalized vaccines against cancer, and we study ways to try to enhance the body's response to a vaccine against their tumor,” Hawkins explained. “The other part of that is, particularly with pancreatic cancer, the immune system doesn't 'see' it. The tumor secretes cytokines that are suppressive to the immune system. It attracts immune cells that dampen the immune system, so we're trying to work at that level to get the immune system to 'see' the cancer."

Since that initial grant from PanCAN, Hawkins has continued his relationship with the organization, including serving on its scientific advisory board and traveling to Washington, D.C., with members to advocate for research funding.

Expanding Hollings’ services to South Carolina and beyond

Hawkins grew up in a working-class neighborhood on Long Island. Hollings and MUSC Health’s outreach and community efforts were appealing to him.

“I come from a community where you help everybody, and that's MUSC's mission – to care for its community,” he said. “I’ve been in the ivory tower for too long, considering where I come from.”

He’s looking forward to building an even more robust translational research program and helping doctors and researchers to connect the dots between the lab and the clinic.

“If you make a discovery and you can change the way we treat a particular cancer, you impact not just the MUSC community – but the world,” he said. “That is really what I'm striving to do … to change the vision and the culture – to stop thinking locally and start thinking about changing how the world thinks about cancer and the world treats cancer."