Kenneth J. Pienta, M.D.
We shall not cease from exploration
You Can Go Home Again
Winter weather in Ann Arbor, where Dr. Pienta has been a Professor of Internal Medicine and Urology as well as director of Experimental Therapeutics at the Michigan Center for Translational Pathology in the University of Michigan School of Medicine, is quite cold. Early-morning temperatures are often well below zero. This is all about to change, however, when he returns again to Baltimore and Johns Hopkins. For it's in Charm City where winter's weather is relatively mild and snowfall is infrequent that he'll now be accumulating his daily pre-work mileage.
To the delight of many, Dr. Pienta, internationally recognized as a leader in prostate cancer research and translational science, accepted the position as Director of Research at the Brady Urological Institute in January 2013.
"I am excited to announce that such an accomplished scientist is joining us at the Brady," says Alan W. Partin, Chairman of the Brady Urological Institute. "I am looking forward to working with Ken in the coming months and years."
A graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in 1986, Dr. Pienta did his medical oncology fellowship at the Brady Urological Institute from 1988 to 1991 and was mentored by Donald S. Coffey, Ph.D., who served as Director of the Research Laboratories in the Department of Urology for thirty years, from 1974 to 2004. His primary work focused on how cell structure and function became altered in cancer cells. Dr. Pienta joined the University of Michigan faculty in 1994 and four years later, he was promoted to full professor. In 2012, he took on additional duties by serving as Associate Vice President for Research, Health Sciences at the University.
"Old friends still remain, and there are plenty of new ones to meet. The number of great investigators and physicians working at the Brady is just unbelievable and it's not matched anywhere in the field of urology. I am looking forward with great enthusiasm to joining that team."
"I have always tried to stay true to Don's philosophy. When we collected prostate tissue through our tissue acquisition program at Michigan, we gave samples freely throughout the world when researchers asked. Over the years, that eventually led to many scientific discoveries."
"In 2013, that has all changed," Dr. Pienta admits, "because so many of the researchers trained at the Brady over the years are now directing or working at top-notch programs at other institutions. This creates strong competition, which is good. No longer number one simply by default, we have to retain the title of being the best by continuing to make new and important discoveries and working even harder."
"What I have discovered is that people love to do things outside of what they normally think about and do," he says. "In my administrative role, it's this sort of thinking and collaboration that I will promote. I am confident that it's what will help take the current Brady group to new levels of discovery and improved patient care."
Dr. Pienta, named Distinguished Mentor of the Year in 2009 by the American Urological Association, views himself as a team player who will offer suggestions and guidance about direction and goals in his new role as Director of Research at the Brady. He believes that effective cancer research comes down to understanding what everyone's interests are and then figuring out who can best help each one achieve them.
Dr. Pienta knows that it will take some time to adjust to his new surroundings, but not that much. "Thanks to the generosity of the many donors who have allowed us to expand, we have a changing culture here and I have to learn the new ecosystem," he says. "Twenty years ago, Brady had a single floor devoted to research. Now we are spread out over several floors of the Marburg, Park, and Cancer Center buildings. This changes the environment of the Brady and how our scientists interact with each other. I have to understand that special ecosystem in order to maximize its potential."
"By trying to best understand this ever-evolving ecosystem and how the various cells compete or cooperate with each other, I want to eventually develop what I call ecotherapies, or novel cancer therapies," says Dr. Pienta. "One of the reasons I am coming to the Brady is because I want to accelerate the pace of my own discoveries and come up with an effective ecological therapy that will modify the environment where the cancer cells are found."
When asked to take out his crystal ball and look into the future as it pertains to promising areas of research that will lead to the creation of new prostate cancer breakthroughs over the next five to ten years, Dr. Pienta is extremely optimistic.
Dr. Pienta also envisions new drugs for cancer that has recurred following definitive therapy with surgery and radiation, as well as effective medications for more advanced hormone-refractory disease. "We went through a tremendous drought of new drugs for prostate cancer from 1996 and 2008, but now we have so many new medications, with plenty more in the pipeline, including novel vaccines.
"We certainly have the potential for incremental progress in the treatment of advanced prostate cancer but also the great potential for an exponential leap if we solve issues of drug combinations and know how to correctly use targeted therapy.
"Overall, there will be many innovative treatments that we'll be able to transition from bench to bedside. And that's certainly a very good thing."