Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center launched a new Division of Radiation Oncology in July 2023 led by Ramesh Rengan, MD, PhD, Senior Vice President and Professor in the Clinical Research Division.
The establishment of the new division is part of an overall strategy to synchronize Fred Hutch’s structure with those of other leading cancer centers. The Division of Radiation Oncology will collaborate closely with UW Medicine and the UW School of Medicine, but it will recruit its own faculty members. Eligible UW faculty will be given the option to receive appointments to the division.
Rengan will continue in his current role as department chair of Radiation Oncology at UW as he oversees the new division and its mission to elevate and incorporate radiation oncology research into Fred Hutch’s basic and translational science.
We recently asked Rengan to discuss what the future holds for the new division.
Can you talk about the impetus behind formalizing a Division of Radiation Oncology at Fred Hutch?
There are three so-called pillars of cancer care: surgical oncology (removing the tumor), medical oncology (using a drug such as chemotherapy, targeted therapy or immunotherapy to attack the cancer) and radiation oncology (using precisely targeted radiation to destroy the tumor). One of the earliest uses of radiation after its discovery in 1896 was to treat cancer. It was immediately recognized as a remarkably effective and curative treatment for cancer when used by experienced physicians.
We are firmly in the era of precision oncology where we tailor therapies to the biology of the patient and tumor in front of us. We are moving beyond classifying a patient as stage one, two, three or four. We now have sophisticated tools to say here are the genetics of your tumor and your biology, and here is a set of tools to treat your disease. Achieving the promise of precision oncology requires seamless integration of that information from the bench to bedside.
In launching this new Division, we are hoping to create a first-in-class precision Radiation Oncology program that will harness the discoveries our newly recruited radiation oncology scientists make at the bench and translate them to the well-established, world-class clinical care our clinical radiation oncologists deliver at the bedside.
You mention the importance of integrating information from bench to bedside, from research to clinical care. How?
From the outset, there will be meaningful opportunities to recruit world-class radiation researchers under the Fred Hutch umbrella to join our division so that is an immediate benefit. Longer-term benefits will be left to the imagination of our talented faculty. This provides them with a runway and no organizational constraints because we now have a single umbrella under Fred Hutch for radiation oncology. There’s nothing to prevent people at different organizations from working together, but it’s easier to collaborate when there is one division. It creates a shared journey.
What are the goals of this new division?
We have three goals.
1. Build a basic radiation research program so our researchers can work synergistically and collaborate with one another.
2. Build a radiation clinical trial program that allows us to roll out leading-edge clinical trials. Patients come to Fred Hutch to get tomorrow's cancer treatment today. This new division will help us launch the next generation of clinical trials informed by discoveries our investigators make at the bench.
3. Foster collaborative research. Cancer care is a team sport. World-class radiation research and care is part of a world-class multidisciplinary cancer center.
— Fred Hutch's Dr. Ramesh Rengan, director of the new Radiation Oncology Division
What impact will this have on the patient experience?
In general, integration improves efficiency and our ability to focus on the patient. One of the most stressful parts of the cancer journey after diagnosis is learning to navigate the health care system. Integration will hopefully lessen that. We want to create more seamless patient care. Our true north is to improve the patient care experience.
How long has this division been in the works?
This has been a long time in the making. If you take a look at what's required to set the leading edge in cancer care and particularly radiation oncology, it requires a truly integrated continuum of care from bench to bedside. We have the great fortune of Fred Hutch being a Nobel Prize-winning, world-class cancer research institution. We need a formal division to really allow that bench to flourish in radiation oncology. Since the early days of contemplation of the merger with Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, this was top of mind at the highest levels of leadership.
How big is the division?
We have about 70 faculty right now, including 35 physicians. The other half are medical physicists, researchers and APPs [advanced practice providers].
What sorts of changes are on the horizon?
Right now, all our faculty are UW-employed and that will not change. New scientific recruits will most likely be Fred Hutch employees. Our current faculty will be given the opportunity to have a joint appointment to the new radiation oncology division. That means they will have the ability to walk the halls of Fred Hutch and be part of this institution. We will offer cross-appointments in phases since there is broad interest from faculty for that option.
Bonnie Rochman is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. A former health and parenting writer for Time, she has written a popular science book about genetics, "The Gene Machine: How Genetic Technologies Are Changing the Way We Have Kids—and the Kids We Have." Reach her at email@example.com.
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