Just weeks after the interim tag was removed from her title, Dr. Candace Johnson, President and CEO of Roswell Park Cancer Institute, took part in an historic trip to Cuba. The journey provided a memorable start to the new leader's ambitious agenda for the legendary institution.
It may have been her first visit to the isolated island nation, but Dr. Johnson enjoyed a previous connection to Cuba. In 2011, she started a collaboration between Roswell and a Cuban immunology institute, which has had some recent success with a cancer vaccine.
That familiarity earned her an invitation on Governor Andrew Cuomo's recent trade mission to Cuba.
"This gave us an incredible opportunity to sit down and meet with these individuals and to be able to sort of formalize our vaccine. Without Governor Cuomo's trade mission that this would have happened, at least not with this speed," said Johnson.
Dr. Johnson says Cuba is poor, but also beautiful with warm, welcoming people. She also says they have some impressive health care credentials.
"I know that if you look at median survival, it's about the same as the United States. If you look at infant mortality rate, it's actually about the same as the United States. They spend about four dollars per citizen on healthcare. We spend, using the same metrics, this is what has been printed anyway, about $5,040," said Johnson.
Perhaps due that spending disparity, Dr. Johnson says that necessity may have forced Cuba researchers to become more innovative.
She says one of their cancer vaccines has been tested on patients with lung cancer. Their survival rates are double the rate of those who would not have received the vaccine. The vaccine could offer some exciting possibilities for Roswell researchers.
"For example, this lung vaccine is used currently in Cuba to treat patients with lung cancer and seeing a survival advantage. So, let's back up a little bit. How about people who have stage one lung cancer in this country that are diagnosed," Johnson said.
"You have surgery. You treat the lung cancer. You're free of disease, but you're at high risk for recurrence. The cancer is going to grow back. Let's give the vaccine there. It's relatively non-toxic. You can take it without any side effects. Let's see if we can prevent recurrence. And let's just that works and we prevent recurrence and we show an efficacy in that setting, we could move back even further, and perhaps this vaccine may have value in treating heavy smokers or people with already chronic lung diseases that are at high risk for lung cancer."
Following FDA approval, Dr. Johnson expects Roswell to begin its own trials on the cancer vaccine in the next six to eight months. Dr. Johnson notes, however, that young researchers face a daunting reality when it comes to funding.
"Here they are, they're bright-eyed, they want to get into science and medicine, and it's very difficult for them to get grants. So, we're looking at all kinds of ways. Not only the federal sources, but private foundations, philanthropy, other ways to fund research. It worries all of us in this field across the country," she said.
Another challenge in cancer care is connecting what's happening in laboratory research with the needs of the physician caring for a patient. Something that Roswell Park, Dr. Johnson believes, has traditionally done very well. And with that success at its roots, Dr. Johnson would like to enhance Roswell's work in the areas of immunotherapy and genomics.
"We're going to recruit some stars. We want to recruit some high-profile individuals both in science and in medicine. Those just bring excitement to both to the area and to the institute and to the community."