Photo by Robert Hood
Dr. Eric Holland aims to do something that hasn’t happened in more than a half century: Find a better strategy for treating the deadliest brain tumors.
Holland specializes in glioblastoma, a brain cancer that spreads quickly and is notorious for its ability to weave inside brain tissue. That makes it almost impossible for surgeons to completely remove the tumors, called gliomas. The best available treatment – an aggressive combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation – can cause brain damage, yet the tumors almost always come back within months.
Holland, 54, has dedicated his career to finding more effective therapies with fewer side effects. At Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, he spent 13 years building a world-renowned brain cancer program that used an innovative approach to tackle the disease’s toughest challenges. Now he’s bringing that approach to Seattle as the new director of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s Human Biology Division and the Nancy and Buster Alvord Brain Tumor Center at the University of Washington. Holland also leads solid tumor translational research across both institutions.
His goals include changing how brain cancer is treated and guiding Hutch researchers toward new therapies for solid tumors that affect many other organs including the breast, colon and pancreas.
“We were looking for someone who could help us revolutionize solid tumor treatment,” said Dr. Larry Corey, Fred Hutch’s president and director. “And we knew that, absolutely, Eric was the one.”
Turning discoveries into real-world therapies
What sets Holland apart is his ability to turn scientific discoveries into real-world therapies that improve patients’ lives. This translational process can take years and cost millions of dollars, and it is fraught with potential pitfalls and dead ends.
“We were looking for someone who could help us revolutionize solid tumor treatment and we knew that, absolutely, Eric was the one.”
– Dr. Larry Corey, Fred Hutch president and director
“A lot of people are [either] great basic scientists or great clinicians,” said Dr. Andy Koff, who worked under Holland at Memorial Sloan-Kettering. “Eric … actually fused basic research and clinical practice.”
At Memorial Sloan-Kettering, Holland took a unique approach to brain cancer by integrating people from disciplines who typically don’t work together. He invited basic scientists, clinical researchers, surgeons, mathematicians, computational biologists and other specialists to collaborate on solutions. And he developed tools to accelerate their progress.
Holland created a mouse model that lets researchers pinpoint where gliomas form and understand how they affect surrounding cells. The model gives researchers a powerful platform for testing drugs that could eradicate the tumors or slow their growth.
For instance, Holland’s team used the model to identify the genetic pathways that drive glioma formation. Then, in preclinical studies, they showed that particular drugs could block that pathway. Now
Holland’s colleagues are leading phase 1 clinical trials to find out whether the drugs could improve outcomes for children with solid tumors.
“The model dramatically improves our ability to zero in on how drugs affect gliomas,” Holland said, “and it’s being used by researchers around the world.”
Photo by Matt Hagen
Precision brain cancer treatment
Holland arrived in Seattle with an ambitious goal: quickly transform brain cancer treatment across Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and UW Medicine. To accomplish this, he launched the Brain Tumor Profiling Initiative, a collaboration between Fred Hutch and UW Medicine that will help doctors better tailor their treatments.
The initiative builds on Holland’s work at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, where he created the world’s most comprehensive brain tumor database. Based on tumor samples from hundreds of patients, the database contains a complete genetic profile of each tumor, plus details on how each patient was treated and how they responded.
Holland is building a similar database in Seattle using several thousand tissue samples collected by UW’s Department of Neurological Surgery.
The goal is for every new patient to have his or her tumor profiled. Doctors can then compare that profile to other tumors in the database and select the most effective therapy. Holland believes this approach can eventually be used to improve treatment for patients worldwide.
“This is personalized medicine – making decisions that are tailored to the tumor,” Holland said.
Goal: Revolutionize solid tumor treatment
Luring Holland away from Memorial Sloan-Kettering wasn’t easy. He landed around $50 million in federal funding for its brain cancer center and built a faculty of more than 70 people. Moving to Seattle also meant uprooting his family, which includes his wife, Dimitria, and their school-aged sons Nikolas and Alexander. Ultimately, he was drawn by the opportunity to apply his brain cancer approach to many different solid tumors and 11 members of his team followed him to Seattle.
“The Hutch’s science is first-rate and they outlined a compelling vision,” Holland said. “It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
He is building on a strong foundation. Human Biology Division researchers investigate how cancer and other diseases impact the body, and pursue the development of therapies that reduce that impact. The Hutch has received three prestigious National Cancer Institute Specialized Programs of Research Excellence, or SPORE, grants for its work on breast, ovarian and prostate cancers. And researchers like Dr. Peter Nelson – who is developing tailored treatments for advanced prostate cancer – are already at the forefront of precision oncology.
In August, Holland’s team launched the Solid Tumor Translational Research (STTR) effort, which brings together investigators and clinicians from Fred Hutch, UW Medicine and SCCA. STTR is on a mission to develop precision treatments for tumors affecting the brain, breast, colon, head and neck, lung, ovary, pancreas and prostate. Holland plans to bolster research in these areas until they are all substantial enough to earn SPORE grants, which help researchers translate discoveries into therapies.
STTR sets the stage for the type of collaborations that flourished under Holland in New York. These will provide insights into how to improve treatment for many tumors and will lead to discoveries that can then be applied back to brain cancer. It’s the best shot at making headway against the disease.
“It will take collaborations with computer scientists, software programmers, nanotechnology engineers and others to make the next level of discoveries,” said Desert Horse-Grant, who directs STTR’s strategy and operations. “If we can integrate disciplines and feed the information into high-powered computers, it could lead to the breakthroughs that have eluded us.”
New research network pursues tumor cures
Last summer, Dr. Eric Holland launched the Solid Tumor
Translational Research (STTR) network to pursue new therapies for tumors affecting nearly a dozen major organs. The network’s goal is to translate new discoveries into lifesaving treatments – a process that can cost millions of dollars and is fraught with pitfalls.
STTR builds on the collaborative approach that Holland used at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where he invited everyone from surgeons to mathematicians to work together toward cures. The network includes researchers from Fred Hutch, UW Medicine and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.
To learn more, visit STTRCancer.org
Combining research and neurosurgery
As if running the Fred Hutch Human Biology Division, UW’s Alvord Brain Tumor Center and STTR weren’t challenging enough, Holland also performs brain surgeries and is a UW professor of neurological surgery. People advised Holland against juggling both surgery and research when he was in medical school. It was too difficult, they told him, and too demanding.
He has spent his life proving them wrong – just ask John Gallagher, a 40-year-old veterinarian in Darien, Conn. who was diagnosed 10 years ago with melanoma that had spread to his brain. Holland performed six surgeries to remove the cancer each time it recurred, and Gallagher has been cancer-free for five years.
“He was just spot on,” Gallagher said. “He knew exactly what to do.”
It’s these survival stories that explain why Holland insists on staying involved in patient care.
“I love surgery – operating on someone lets you directly improve their life,” Holland said, “and I love research because it’s a chance to have an impact on many, many more people.”
Photo provided by the Gallagher family
"He always gave me hope"
How Dr. Eric Holland helped John Gallagher survive brain cancer.
John Gallagher remembers the visceral terror he felt before his first brain surgery: It was like he was on an airplane headed for a fatal crash.
Gallagher, a veterinarian who lives in Darien, Conn., was diagnosed a decade ago with melanoma that had spread to various parts of his brain. He was told he had a 3 percent chance of surviving more than four years.
His surgeon, Dr. Eric Holland, helped him decide on a course of treatment.
Gallagher received chemotherapy and radiation, but the tumors kept growing. He underwent six brain surgeries to remove the cancer each time it recurred, all performed by Holland while he was working at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Gallagher’s medical background enabled him to have detailed conversations with Holland, and the more they talked, the more reassured Gallagher felt.
“I realized the guy is just a completely brilliant, amazing individual,” he said. Gallagher recalls calling Holland’s office after his first surgery to ask a question. To his surprise, Holland himself picked up the phone.
“That’s not something common for a busy surgeon to do,” Gallagher said. “That speaks volumes about the type of guy he is. He’s not just a surgeon – he’s a wonderful doctor. He’s a good person.”
Gallagher celebrated the birth of his first child in May and his 40th birthday in June. He’s been cancer-free for five years and says Holland is the reason he’s alive today.
“He never suggested that things weren’t going to work out,” he said. “He always gave me hope.”
Write to Deborah Bach at firstname.lastname@example.org