A lasting legacy
Gordon Ginder steps down after 22 years at the helm of VCU Massey Cancer Center
Much has changed in the scientific understanding and medical treatment of cancer in the United States in the last two decades. Major risk factors for cancer such as obesity and familial history have been identified. Scientists successfully mapped out the entirety of the human genome, leading the way for research to pinpoint specific genetic mutations that influence cancer growth. More innovative screening methods for lung, breast and colorectal cancers have improved early detection. The concept of reprogramming the body’s immune cells to fight against disease has become a focal point for the development of immunotherapies for the treatment of cancer. A variety of groundbreaking therapies and medicines were developed, including a chemotherapy that significantly increased survival for many women with advanced breast cancer; the first vaccine to prevent cervical cancer; the first targeted treatments for lung cancer and advanced melanoma; and the first-ever gene therapy for rare forms of leukemia and lymphoma. As a result of these advances, the number of Americans who are surviving cancer of all types continues to grow.
VCU Massey Cancer Center had a hand in many of those advancements, and in that same span played a fundamental role in helping shape America’s cancer research efforts. Under the direction of Gordon D. Ginder, M.D., since 1997, VCU Massey Cancer Center has solidified into a premier institution for innovative research, patient care and education.
After 22 years in the driver’s seat, Ginder will step down on December 2 from his rank as one of the longest-standing directors of a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center.
“It has been my great privilege to serve as director of VCU Massey Cancer Center,” Ginder said. “I am deeply grateful to the many wonderful and passionate community supporters of Massey and the dedicated and hardworking Massey researchers, clinicians and staff who made possible our success over the years.”
While he is ending his tenure in the lead role, he will not be leaving the Massey community. He will remain at Massey as a scientist and hematologist-oncologist and continue contributing to research, teaching and patient care, serving patients with blood and lymph node cancers.
“When I took this position, I said that one of my goals was to make this cancer center a place where I would want to come as a physician and researcher,” Ginder said. “As I look forward to the next phase of my career, I am happy that I will be doing just that – focusing on my research and my patients here at Massey.”
Putting patients first
Reverend Gary Jones was diagnosed with an extremely rare cancer in 2011, and the only clinical trial open anywhere at the time to treat his disease had not afforded any patient a survival longer than 19 months. But when he came to Massey and consulted with Ginder, he was reassured that the statistics most likely were not relevant in his case and that there were treatment options available. Jones has been cancer free since 2012 and reflects gratefully on the care, compassion and confidence given to him by Ginder.
“Throughout my entire eight months of active treatment with him, he was a source of hope, inspiration, incredible medical expertise and constant encouragement,” Jones said. “He was the one who kept me going. He’s not just a great medical professional — Dr. Ginder is a real healer.”
Ginder’s power for healing extended beyond his own clinical practice to the whole of Massey Cancer Center. Under his direction, Massey immensely expanded as a multidisciplinary, comprehensive cancer care facility, becoming a referral center for the most complex and rare cancers and treatment options for patients across Virginia and beyond. Among many other landmark care services, the cancer center boasts one of the largest selections of cancer clinical trials in the state; internationally renowned palliative care that is integrated with its cancer care; the largest and most comprehensive bone marrow transplant program in Virginia; a world-class breast health team; next-generation genome sequencing capabilities for precision cancer treatment; the commonwealth’s first cardio-oncology program; and FDA-approved CAR T-cell therapies for the treatment of adults with B-cell lymphomas and children with B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
Leading life-saving discoveries
In addition to his role as a physician, Ginder will also continue as a Massey researcher in the Cancer Molecular Genetics program, studying epigenetics and the regulation of genes in cancer and blood disorders.
Currently, Ginder holds a $3.2 million multi-PI (multiple principal investigators) R01 grant from the National Institutes of Health to support a team science project that aims to identify molecular targets that could be used to develop novel therapies for multiple blood disorders. The findings of this project could have significant implications for the future treatment of blood diseases and certain cancers, including leukemia and breast tumors.
Beyond his own research, Ginder successfully oversaw five competitive renewals of Massey’s NCI designation, which is awarded only to cancer centers that have proven their ability to lead and shape America’s cancer research efforts and make scientific discoveries that become new, life-saving treatments. Only 71 cancer centers in the country – 4 percent of cancer treatment facilities nationwide – and only two in Virginia currently hold this designation. Furthermore, Massey has been well positioned for Comprehensive Cancer Center designation, the highest recognition from NCI. Examples of novel developments that Massey researchers helped to pioneer in the last two decades include pemetrexed (Alimta), a leading chemotherapy for the treatment of lung cancer; multiple innovative radiation therapies such as accelerated partial breast irradiation that reduce treatment timeframes and decrease exposure of healthy tissue to radiation; new chemotherapy combinations for the treatment of hematologic malignancies; the use of neoadjuvant therapy (pre-operative chemotherapy or hormone therapy) for breast cancer patients; and a first-ever model that can predict with up to 90 percent accuracy the amount of nicotine emitted by an electronic cigarette.
In the last 22 years, Massey has developed greater depth and breadth of research in basic, translational, clinical and population science, and interactive research programs that bridge these scientific areas. Massey has increased its high-impact research productivity since 1997, growing the number of research publications by 429 percent and the number of research projects by 57 percent. The cancer center also increased its NCI peer-reviewed funding 315 percent over the last two decades. Additionally, Massey has successfully fostered several translational trials based on scientific discoveries emanating from its scientific programs: Since 1998, Massey has developed 264 investigator-initiated clinical research studies, including observational studies and correlative studies.
Massey is now a prominent leader in disparities research, studying the socioeconomic, cultural and biological forces causing or contributing to disparities in cancer outcomes and developing methods to eliminate those disparities. As part of a safety-net hospital that provides health care services for all patients regardless of ability to pay, Massey serves a patient population with a large portion from underrepresented minorities. The cancer center has seized this opportunity to conduct studies designed to reduce cancer incidence and mortality among minorities, including the implementation of a statewide clinical trials network that facilitates access to cancer research for medically underserved populations.
A hallmark of research success is collaboration among scientists, and Ginder cultivated the healthy atmosphere of collaboration and collegiality that presently thrives at Massey. It’s evidenced often by incoming researchers who champion their ability to partner across laboratories, departments, schools and disciplines as a major factor in drawing them to the cancer center. Perhaps this organizational culture is a natural byproduct of the unselfish and humble way that Ginder interacts with his colleagues.
David Williams, Jr., M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor at the UNC School of Medicine and former Massey researcher, frequently collaborates with Ginder on research projects and commends the passion and generosity that he displays in the laboratory.
“He really wants to understand how things work with the goal of helping patients,” Williams said. “It’s never been about who does what or who takes credit for what. In fact, I would argue that he’s given me more credit in situations where he could have taken more for himself.”
Developing a world-class team
With Ginder’s leadership, the Massey research community has grown substantially. Through key recruitments and engagement of VCU faculty conducting cancer-relevant research, the number of active Massey research members has increased 150 percent to more than 220. During that same timeframe, the Cancer Prevention and Control research program ballooned from four to more than 55 members and developed into Massey’s strongest, most transdisciplinary research program with high ratings from the NCI. Ginder also helped to fortify a long-standing partnership with the VA Medical Center, where several Massey radiation oncologists serve in national leadership roles, and a new cancer center director at Hunter Homes McGuire VA Medical Center was recently recruited with a joint appointment as the associate director for veteran’s health at Massey.
Massey’s success and growth has been fueled by a fourfold increase in extramural, philanthropic and state funding for life-saving cancer research. Massey is now one of the top five charities in the Richmond area, raising nearly $226 million in philanthropic funds since 1997 and garnering $82.5 million in State General Funds over the last 12 years. Massey is supported by 11,000 donors and the active advocacy of 83 Community Advisory Board members and 35 Massey Alliance (young professional board) members. The annual Ukrop’s Monument Avenue 10k, one of the country’s largest 10K races, has selected Massey as its official charitable partner for 14 years, presenting Massey with an exciting way to engage the Richmond community in fundraising for local, life-saving cancer research through the Massey Challenge.
Speaking on behalf of Team Massey and the ‘Massey Nation’, the dedicated supporters of the Massey mission, Becky Massey, Advisory Board member and major advocate for the cancer center, celebrates all that Ginder has accomplished as a leader.
“Gordon, we love you. The community loves you. Everyone in the Massey Nation loves you. Thank you for what you have done for all of us,” she said.
Inspiring the next generation
Ginder’s students echo that sentiment. Maria Amaya, chief fellow in medical oncology at the University of Colorado who spent four years training in Ginder’s lab, considers him the definition of a mentor.
“He really enjoys teaching students,” Amaya said. “Many years later, we still keep in touch, we still see each other once a year at a conference, and he still gives me a ton of career advice. He’s really dedicated to other people and very invested in their careers and their lives.”
Ginder will continue teaching and mentoring as a professor of internal medicine at the VCU School of Medicine and in his research lab at Massey.
Under Ginder’s leadership, Massey was established as a hub of education, successfully competing for training grants; offering training programs and continuing education conferences for oncology health care professionals; providing cancer research training programs for undergrad, grad, Ph.D., and pre- and post-doctoral students; and expanding health education to cancer patients and community members through community-engaged research, healthy living programs, resource libraries, seminars, workshops and health fairs.
Building on a strong foundation against cancer
“Ginder’s visionary and dedicated leadership of Massey leaves a lasting legacy that has impacted countless lives within and beyond our community,” said Marsha Rappley, M.D., CEO of VCU Health System and vice president of VCU Health Sciences.
As Ginder passes on the torch to Massey’s incoming director, Robert Winn, M.D., the groundwork has already been laid for the future of cancer treatment at Massey in the form of an oncology pavilion that will consolidate the bulk of the center’s outpatient services on its campus in downtown Richmond. Projected to open in 2021, the pavilion is part of a new 16-story, 603,000 square foot outpatient facility being constructed by VCU Health. It will serve as a lasting stamp of all the state-of-the-art cancer research, training and care facilities that were born across the university and health system during Ginder’s tenure. These facilities include, but are not limited to, oncology clinics at Stony Point, oncology inpatient units in the Critical Care Hospital, the Massey Research Pavilion in the McGlothlin Medical Education Center and the Goodwin Research Laboratory, the first building at VCU dedicated solely to cancer research.
Ginder’s leadership will be remembered as one of service to the community and of fully embodying Massey Cancer Center’s mission to save and improve the lives affected by cancer. The Massey sunburst burns brighter today because of his efforts and endures as a beacon for a world without cancer.