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Director Of UTSW’s Cancer Center Is Leaving To Join Leadership Team Of CPRIT

The man who helped UT Southwestern’s cancer center become one of only two in the state to win elite federal comprehensive designation has been tapped to lead the scientific arm of Texas’ cancer research institute.
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The man who helped UT Southwestern’s cancer center become one of only two in the state to win elite federal comprehensive designation has been tapped to lead the scientific arm of Texas’ cancer research institute.

Beginning March 1, Dr. James Willson will be the chief scientific officer of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas. He takes over from Dr. Margaret Kripke, the former executive vice president of the MD Anderson Cancer Center. Kripke joined CPRIT in January 2013 and stepped down last April, saying she had accomplished what she set out to.

Willson will no longer be the director of the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center at UT Southwestern. A replacement has not yet been named.

“Dr. Willson has provided outstanding leadership as Director of the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center at UT Southwestern, as reflected in the enormous growth of both its groundbreaking research program and superb care for cancer patients,” said Dr. Daniel K. Podolsky, president of UT Southwestern. “CPRIT and the state of Texas are fortunate that Dr. Willson will bring his great expertise and experience to the vitally important position of Chief Scientific Officer. We will be forever grateful for his contributions to UT Southwestern over the past decade and wish him well in his new role.”

As the highest-ranking scientific officer for the state agency, Willson will help vet grant proposals and identify and attract groundbreaking cancer researchers to relocate to Texas. Voters approved the creation of CPRIT in 2007, giving it $3 billion to disperse over the next decade—about $300 million in grants go out each year. He will report to CEO Wayne Roberts, who has led CPRIT since November 2013.

While at UT Southwestern, he helped the Simmons Center become one of just 45 cancer centers in America to achieve comprehensive status from the National Cancer Institute. It is the only center in North Texas with that accolade and the second in Texas; MD Anderson is the only other. His research has helped identify genetic factors that clue in how diseases develop. Last year, he was in charge of a collaborative study that found a molecule that could help cell recovery after bone marrow transplants, liver disease, and colon disease.

He joined UT Southwestern in 2004 and nearly immediately went to work on getting that coveted comprehensive designation. It means that researchers interact with clinicians and lab techs and radiologists and all matter of related practitioners to determine an individualized treatment plan for each patient. It recognizes the infrastructure and the resources, yes, but it’s also a signal that the more difficult culture of treatment has aligned and is among the best in the world.

“Cancer is not a single diagnosis but many different diagnoses,” Willson told me after the designation. “Within a specific cancer type, individual cancers can be quite different so the opportunity to bring leading edge research to characterize those differences has become very important and requires that close partnership between scientific expertise and patient care expertise.”

With Willson’s appointment, UT Southwestern has now contributed two of the three chief scientific officers for CPRIT. Dr. Alfred G. Gilman, who died just before Christmas, was the first chief scientific officer for the organization. He stepped down in protest amid allegations that former board members steered grants to organizations without the appropriate oversight.

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