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Focus on Dennis Hallahan, MD

Dennis Hallahan, MD, FASRO, is chairman of the radiation oncology department and the Elizabeth H. and James S. McDonnell III Distinguished Professor in Medicine. His clinical interests are in treating cancers of the brain and central nervous system.

What happened in the course of schooling to make you choose radiation oncology as your specialty?

I did research in a cancer biology laboratory while I was in medical school. At the time, my work on angiogenesis of tumor blood vessels sparked my curiosity in the field of cancer biology and I originally chose medical oncology as my specialty.

While I was training at the University of Chicago, I met some brilliant mentors in radiation oncology and decided to train with them as opposed to going into medical oncology.

With radiation oncology, patients get an immediate benefit from treatment and can improve very rapidly. Within the course of a month or two, you are able to see cures of cancers, relief of pain, and improved function of an organ that’s damaged by cancer. The positive feedback we get from our patients and their families is very rewarding.

What was it about Washington University that influenced your decision to come here?

Washington University has a rich history in the field of radiology and radiation oncology with the Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology. About eight years ago, the School of Medicine decided to make radiation oncology a department separate from radiology. The founders of the department are great clinicians and are world renown for the work they do in radiation oncology. It is very rewarding for me to be able to step into such a prominent program.

In addition to Washington University’s outstanding reputation and world class faculty, the technology and facilities here are among the best in the nation.

The equipment combines advanced technology with the latest treatment devices -- offering a greater variety than just about any other place in the country or for that matter, the world. One of those devices is the proton therapy system. It is a big draw to have technology that allows you to study patients who have incurable diseases or cancers that are in very challenging areas (anatomical sites) for treatment.

One of the facilities is called the “Biologic Therapeutics Core facility”, in which clinical grade material is made to study new drugs in patients. It allows us to take a drug that has been developed in the laboratory and bring to patients for the first time. We call those “first-in-man” studies. It eliminates a lot of the obstacles in bringing something to people for the first time. My laboratory develops radiation sensitizing drugs, radiation protectors, antibodies that bind to cancer and drug delivery systems that deliver drugs just to cancer. There are only a handful of cancer centers around the country that have this type of facility where you can develop the drug on campus and administer to patients for the first time.

Another outstanding facility is the Siteman Cancer Center in the Center for Advanced Medicine. It is a special place for patients where radiation oncologists, medical oncologists, surgeons and radiologists work together under one roof. This multi-disciplinary approach helps us manage patient care and is more convenient for our patients because they can see each of their specialists all in one location. It also is home to world-renowned cancer researchers.

Is it necessary to use a pharmaceutical company when developing a new drug?

An Investigational New Drug (IND) is a process with the FDA, and it doesn’t require a pharmaceutical company. There are many obstacles to bring drugs and concepts out of the laboratory and into the clinic. The biggest barrier is the financing to conduct the clinical trials. The cost is roughly 100 million dollars to develop a cancer drug. Pharmaceutical companies generally are not interested in developing new drugs that come directly out of academia. They prefer to conduct pre-clinical drug development and then bring their lead candidates into clinical trials on their own, independent of academia. So, those of us who are involved in developing new drugs find it difficult to move our drugs into the pharmaceutical industry. With a facility like the Washington University Biologic Therapeutics Core, we don’t have to license our technology to a pharmaceutical company. We can prove it works in people first, before proceeding on to the next phase of clinical trials.

Are there any new developments in the field that you are excited about?

The proton therapy system, that I mentioned previously, is unique at Washington University. It is a “single room system” and that brings the cost of proton therapy technology down. Typically, proton therapy has been unaffordable by most universities and large practice groups because the system consists of three and four rooms, making it three and four times the cost of the facility here. The fact that we can have this technology at a low cost, and the fact that is the first of its kind in the world is appropriate for this place. We’ll be the leaders in making proton therapy affordable.

Which aspect of your practice is most interesting?

Developing new technology and drugs to treat cancer is most interesting to me. I conduct what are called “phase-one” clinical trials. This is where we test drugs for the first time in people and make certain that the drugs are safe and that the drugs do what we expect them to do.

Where are you from?

I spent the first four decades of my life in Chicago and one decade at Vanderbilt in Nashville before coming here. Because there are so many opportunities in Chicago, it took a great deal to convince me to move on -- the chance to become a Chairman at Vanderbilt was too good to pass up. After being there for about ten years, to have the opportunity to move into a world renowned program like Washington University was also too good to pass up.

Is there a particular award or achievement that you are most proud of?

I would have to say that the award granted to me from Washington University, The Elizabeth and James McDonnell III Distinguished Professor, is the most gratifying to me.

In the field of radiation oncology, there are probably only a dozen distinguished professors worldwide. It’s a newly created professorship and it is one of the opportunities that the School of Medicine offered to attract me here.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

The best advice I’ve ever received was from my mentor at the University of Chicago, Dr. Ralph Weichselbaum. He encouraged me to consider the field of radiation oncology. He also convinced me to continue to do research as a physician/scientist throughout my career.

If you weren’t a doctor, what would you like to be doing?

I am doing all the things I would want to be doing, which is interesting because I do more than patient care – I’m a teacher and a researcher. And because I’m able to develop new companies and technologies, I’m also an entrepreneur.

If I wasn’t a physician, I would be teaching or doing research -- or both.

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Copyright 2015 Washington University School of Medicine