St. Jude CEO talks biggest challenges to accomplish $11.5 billion plan

St. Jude CEO Dr. James Downing talks about new developments

Dr. James R. Downing, President and CEO of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, talks about the multi-billion dollar development of the hospital campus.

Max Gersh, Memphis Commercial Appeal

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital’s ambitious $ 11.5 billion plan requires many new employees to advance research into catastrophic childhood diseases, a recruiting task that CEO Dr. James Downing would be a major challenge in achieving his goals.

“We need to recruit more,” Downing said in an interview about the six-year plan announced April 27. and work on this campus. “

The new recruits will help the Memphis facility carry out its plan to accelerate research and treatment. In addition to the 70 faculty roles, other new employees will work in research, support, clinical and international roles – St. Jude says it will add a total of 1,400 new employees.

St. Jude will also increase workers’ compensation. In its strategic plan, St. Jude said it will invest $ 67 million to improve the competitiveness of its salaries against East and West Coast institutions.

Teaching the next generation

To keep the talent pipeline going, St. Jude develops programs for high school and college students to spark their interest in science and other fields.

“We see ourselves as an A-plus research organization sitting here in Memphis,” said Downing. “So, is there anything we can do to encourage those within our community to pursue careers in science and medicine?”

As part of the strategic plan, St. Jude will establish a summer science fellowship program for Middle South high school and college students. The 8 to 12 week paid fellowship accepts approximately 30 students, according to the plan. These students will intern in laboratory, clinical, population science, or data science programs, it added.

St. Jude will also develop an educational platform for high school students on the St. Jude Cloud. The St. Jude Cloud is home to the largest public repository of pediatric cancer genome data.

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“The goal is to inspire high school students and their teachers to learn more about the emerging genomic medicine field,” says St. Jude’s strategic plan. “Through this experience, we hope that some students will consider pursuing a career in biomedical sciences.”

Downing said the hope is that for some students these programs will relate to one day work in St. Jude. The strategic plan noted that there is an “extremely small number” of under-represented minorities entering the areas of science and medicine that St. Jude focuses on.

Building pediatric neurology

St. Jude is donating $ 3 billion to childhood cancer as part of its strategic plan, an area where the institution has no shortage of experience. There is still a range of high-risk cancers “where progress has not been so good,” Downing said.

But the plan also calls on St. Jude to promote the healing of children with neurological disorders. Until recently, patients with these diseases “could be diagnosed, but nothing could be done about it,” said Downing.

To help improve those prospects, St. Jude is launching the Pediatric Translational Neuroscience Initiative, a laboratory and clinical trial that will bring a new focus of disease to the Memphis facility.

Under this initiative, the Center for Experimental Neurotherapeutics will be housed, which will work to advance new treatments for pediatric neurological disorders to lifelong cures. Under the strategic plan, the center is likely to enroll 50 to 150 patients annually for clinical trials.

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“As with current gene therapy studies, St. Jude will cover all costs associated with treatment during the study, and patients and their families will stay in St. Jude for short term during evaluation and treatment,” the plan said. .

Downing said the field of pediatric neurology is currently “ill-equipped” to make progress at the pace necessary to find the best therapies for children with neurological disorders. St. Jude felt it could accelerate the effort with the initiative, an investment of more than $ 60 million over the plan’s six years, Downing said.

“We have a strong foundation of research in neuroscience on this campus,” said Downing. “Our researchers have identified some of the genetic defects that result in a subset of these diseases, and efforts in the US and the world have begun to demonstrate how one could develop therapies that could actually change the lifelong outlook for these patients. “

International training of the trainers

Under Downing’s supervision, St. Jude has drawn attention to the treatment of children with pediatric cancer outside the US. Launched in 2018, the St. Jude Global Initiative works to improve access to healthcare for children around the world with cancer and other catastrophic diseases.

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It is easier said than done to get healthcare facilities around the world up to St. Jude’s pace in treating these patients. Many low- and middle-income countries don’t have the infrastructure needed to treat children with childhood cancer, Downing said. He pointed to areas such as workforce, health care systems, and general knowledge of these diseases.

“They can’t use the therapies we use because they don’t have that infrastructure,” Downing said. “So how do we train a workforce around the world so that children can access care wherever they are?”

A major goal of St. Jude is to train people internationally who can educate others in their area. This includes programs such as the St. Jude Global Academy, the Global Child Health Masters Program, regional training programs, and online resources for pediatric cancer physicians. Discontinuing the training of the trainers will “lead to a self-perpetuating process.”

Not every bit of care can be covered through training, the plan says. Estimates indicate that “it will not be possible to train sufficient staff to meet the diagnostic needs of the global childhood cancer burden.”

An accurate diagnosis is the first step towards treatment, the plan said. St. Jude is looking for complementary approaches to address short-term diagnostic work, such as tapping into telemedicine.

“It’s really St. Jude bringing the world together at a point in time where, by bringing everyone together, we can change that vision,” Downing said of the global effort.

Max Garland covers FedEx, logistics and healthcare for The Commercial Appeal. Reach him at [email protected] or 901-529-2651 and on Twitter @MaxGarlandTypes.

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