What’s Really Happening With The Recent Appointments At MD Anderson: My Speculation

What’s Really Happening With The Recent Appointments At MD Anderson: My Speculation

By

Leonard Zwelling

That there should be a lot of rearranging of the deck chairs at MD Anderson should come as no surprise. Whether or not this is another sailing of the Titanic or a new ship of state remains to be seen, but the latest appointments have left a few folks with whom I have spoken a bit queasy. However, I believe a healthy step back might explain it all.

Lots look at what happened around the CAO position following the dismissal of Dr. Dmitrovsky—a welcome bit of political theater in its own right given his recent return to his origins near Washington, DC.

If I understand the sequence, Dr. Sherman took on the role. Dr. Sherman is a wonderful man and a great physician, but is not noted as a laboratory investigator, something that the CAO ought to be given his or her control over lab space, research faculty and staff slots, and research financial support. I suspect there was something amiss between Dr. Sherman and Helen Pinwica-Worms and now both are gone. Rushing into yet another vacuum was Dr. Hahn now holding up two major tent poles—COO and CAO. That’s too much of a lift for even the best of us, which Dr. Hahn no doubt is. So recently, Dr. Draetta was appointed to serve as the ad interim CAO. He too is a strange choice given his past career experience in the corporate world and the emphasis of his research on drug development—not exactly basic science. But Dr. Hahn needed help and it is my hypothesis that appointing someone who would never qualify for the CAO post permanently might have been a good move. Draetta is just a chair warmer after all.

As for the appointment of Jim Allison as Chief Scientific Officer, I find the choice apt but the position strange. MD Anderson has done without a “Chief Scientific Officer” for as long as I can remember. Dr. Becker was the Vice President for Research and served in the CSO role for years as did Dr. von Eschenbach and Dr. Kripke thereafter. They were never called the CSO. Even when Dr. DuBois became “Provost,” he was generally viewed as the leading scientist among the faculty as he had control of the Big 3—space, slots and money. But he was not the CSO. Dr. Mendelsohn had tried to hire a CSO at one point early in his tenure, but that never panned out. I think the whole point is to have a scientist of international stature as the poster boy or girl for the institution. If that’s it, Dr. Allison is a great choice. If he takes on another portfolio along with the one in Immunology, he may be stretched awfully thinly given his rigorous travel schedule.

Now it appears that we have both a CAO and a CSO. How does that work? What’s in the portfolio of each and how does the president prevent them from tripping over one another when it comes to major scientific initiatives and how to support them? Got me!

Finally, it is also my understanding that the infrastructure that I used to oversee in clinical research has lately ground to a halt. Apparently it is really hard to get studies approved and contracts signed. It’s Vuja De!

This amuses me because when this happened in 1995, Drs. Hohn and Raber asked me to unstick it. To the best of my ability, I tried to do that over my nine years overseeing clinical research infrastructure. Many of the innovations that we implemented are still functioning today. And that may be the problem. Just as was the case in 1995, it may be time for fresh eyes to be cast on the support for the most important type of research that MD Anderson does—that which involves human subjects.

So one can hope that there are more changes ahead and that there will be more clarity as to why and who is to do what than is the case with what has transpired so far.

It is generally assumed by my sources that Dr. Pisters must be aware of the changes occurring on the ground at MD Anderson. He will have to deal with the repercussions regardless of the degree to which he has acquiesced to the organizational changes being made following his appointment, but before his arrival.

I am going to choose to take the high road and assume that the latest changes are temporary and will be supplanted by more permanent and competent leadership following the coming of the new president.

But I never take anything for granted.

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