David McConkey believes it’s a critical time for cancer research.
In the past few years, scientists have developed the ability to quickly sequence the entire human genome and now have a better understanding of the heterogeneity of cancers — that is, that different types of cancers can attack the same areas of the body, and will respond differently to treatments, he said.
As the inaugural director of the Johns Hopkins Greenberg Bladder Cancer Institute, McConkey said he sees an opportunity to build on these advances and tackle some of the major research problems that still need to be solved. The institute was established in 2014 with a $45 million co-investment between Johns Hopkins University and developer Erwin L. Greenberg and his wife, Stephanie Cooper Greenberg, who contributed $15 million.
“Groundbreaking ideas have come out of [Johns Hopkins],” said McConkey, who was formally installed as director Saturday. “It’s the perfect environment for research like this.”
Among the immediate research goals are determining how conventional chemotherapy can be used to treat patients with advanced bladder cancer and identifying which patients will best benefit from immunotherapy, which tries to use the body’s own immune system to attack cancer cells, he said.
Bladder cancer is the sixth-most common form of cancer among men, according to the World Cancer Research Fund, and McConkey believes it’s possible to meet those goals — and use them to start improving patient outcomes — in one to two years.
Researchers also need to learn more about what makes bladder cancer start to invade muscle tissue — at which point it becomes particularly lethal, he said. Tumors that haven’t invaded the muscle can be removed but always come back, and it’s not clear what makes them start invading the muscle tissue, McConkey said.
There are also methods of diagnosing other forms of cancer by detecting DNA mutations in blood samples; researchers need to explore whether the same method could be used to find mutated DNA in urine samples, which could offer a less-invasive way to detect tumors than using fiberoptic scopes to look inside a patient, he said.
But the institute could also help fight bladder cancer simply outside of a clinical setting.
“A lot of people don’t know that bladder cancer is linked to smoking,” he said, adding that cancer rates could drop if tobacco use drops. “It’s not as fancy as DNA sequencing, but it could be just as impactful.”
While the institute already has talented surgeons and pathologists at work, McConkey — who has spent the past 23 years as director of urological research at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center — believes his background as a researcher rounds out the multidisciplinary team envisioned for the institute.
“One of the big priorities we all have is to get more visibility for bladder cancer,” he said. “It’s been under the radar for a long time.”