Dr. Robert L. Ferris
Cancer Fighter. Community Member. Bike Rider.
Robert L. Ferris, MD, PhD and Director of UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, develops cancer vaccines to treat head and neck tumors. He knows first-hand the vital importance of funding cancer research. As a cancer fighter, community member, and bike rider, he’s excited about the promise of Rush to Crush Cancer.
Dr. Ferris has been treating and studying head and neck cancer and the immune system for 30 years. His work is focused on so-called ‘immune checkpoints.’ “Cancers slow down the immune system like brakes on your car,” he explains. “We’re trying to figure out how a drug takes off those brakes and works to treat cancer. Just as cancer hides from the immune system so it can develop, the immune system can be harnessed to reverse cancer, like blocking the immune checkpoints. At Hillman, we also use cellular immunotherapy. We can take cells from a patient, expand them, train them, then put them back as cancer treatment.”
Over the course of his career, Dr. Ferris has seen research transform cancer care. “One big difference between 15 years ago and today,” he says, “is that back then, we’d examine one cell at a time from a tumor mass. Now we can take the tumor, which is a ball of many different cell types, digest it, and use what we call ‘big data’ and bioinformatic techniques to profile the millions of cells in the entire tumor at once.
“It's all about comprehensively profiling cells in a way the brain can’t. Before, I had to isolate and study one cell at a time. Today, the big data technology—artificial intelligence—can let the tumor tell us what’s going on. The analytical tools let us access all the information going on in a tumor over a month-long cancer treatment. That’s an amazing thing. And you could only do something like that at a place like Hillman Cancer Center.”
It was not initially Dr. Ferris’s dream to become a physician-scientist, rather mainly to be a doctor treating patients. “It’s all about how you want to tackle disease,” he says. ”You’re exposed to the science in medical school and then if you say to yourself, ‘I want to know more’ and then you move into laboratories, and that’s when you say ‘this is amazing. I don’t want to just use new therapies, I want to create and develop new therapies.’ As a surgeon, I remove cancers, then try to figure out why they happened, so we can try to prevent it from happening to the next person. My ultimate goal is to put myself, as a cancer surgeon, out of business.”
If he succeeds at reaching that goal, a big reason will be collaborative, innovative environment at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. “Here, scientists and oncologists work together,” he says. “Different labs contribute data and insights. Those collaborations are very productive and quite unique. We have very early-stage, high-risk, innovative research that goes from the lab all the way up to the patient’s door, where our 500 clinical trials are bringing that research into standard cancer care. That research is the pipeline for new advances.”
Dr. Ferris sees Rush to Crush Cancer as chance for people to have a conversation with UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, and to learn about wellness, cancer screening, lead healthier lifestyles, and make the community a better place. And, of course, to help fund cancer research. “From day one, when we meet a patient in the clinic,” he says, “we start out a step or two behind cancer. Research is the only way to catch up and get ahead of it. What feeds new treatments tomorrow is doing research today. Our community rallies around fitness-oriented events. And when you combine that with the chance to help in the fight against cancer, I think people are really going to respond to this new event.
Dr. Ferris will be riding one of the Rush to Crush Cancer routes in the inaugural event, which is designed to accommodate riders of all skill levels.
“Spring is the perfect time of year. We’ve all been cooped up. So we can train during the winter and celebrate spring. It’s a fun way to learn what a cancer center does, see parts of the city you may not have checked out, and raise money for a phenomenal cause. We’re celebrating the hope for research to help us do better tomorrow.”