Much has changed in the scientific understanding and medical treatment of cancer in the United States in the past two decades. Major risk factors have been identified. Scientists successfully mapped the human genome, leading the way for research to pinpoint genetic mutations that influence cancer growth. New screening methods for lung, breast and colorectal cancers have improved early detection.
And 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 gene therapy for rare forms of leukemia and lymphoma.
VCU Massey Cancer Center had a hand in many of those advancements, and has played a fundamental role in helping shape America’s cancer research efforts. Under the direction of Gordon D. Ginder, M.D., Massey has solidified into a premier institution for innovative research, patient care and education.
Ginder, who has led Massey for 22 years, will step down Dec. 2. He leaves his role as one of the longest-tenured 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 Ginder is ending his tenure in the lead role, he will not be leaving Massey. He will remain 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.”
Putting patients first
The Rev. 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, Jones 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. Under his direction, Massey expanded as a multidisciplinary, comprehensive cancer care facility, becoming a referral center for the most complex and rare cancers and treatment options for patients. Among many other landmark care services, the cancer center today has one of the largest selections of 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 treatment; Virginia’s first cardio-oncology program; and immunotherapies approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of adults with B-cell lymphomas and children with B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
Leading lifesaving discoveries
In addition to his role as a physician, Ginder will continue as a Massey researcher in the Cancer Molecular Genetics program, studying epigenetics and the regulation of genes in cancer and blood disorders.
Ginder currently holds a $3.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to support a team 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. Only 71 cancer centers in the country — 4% of cancer centers nationwide — and only two in Virginia currently hold this designation.
In the past 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 exponentially since 1997. The center is also now a 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.
A hallmark of research success is collaboration among scientists, and Ginder cultivated a healthy atmosphere of collaboration and collegiality 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.
David Williams Jr., M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine and a 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 to more than 220. During that same timeframe, Massey’s Cancer Prevention and Control research program ballooned from four members to more than 55.
Ginder also helped to fortify a longstanding partnership with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 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 veterans health at Massey.
Massey’s success and growth have been fueled by a fourfold increase in extramural, philanthropic and state funding for cancer research. Massey is now one of the top five charities in the Richmond area, raising nearly $226 million in philanthropic funds since 1997.
Becky Massey, an advisory board member and advocate for the center, celebrates what 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 Becky Massey’s sentiment. Maria Amaya, M.D., Ph.D., 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. As he passes the torch to Massey’s incoming director, Robert Winn, M.D., the groundwork has 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 16-story outpatient facility being constructed by VCU Health. It will serve as a lasting stamp of all the cancer research, training and care facilities that were born across the university and health system during Ginder’s tenure, said Marsha Rappley, M.D., CEO of VCU Health System and senior vice president for health sciences at VCU.
“Ginder’s visionary and dedicated leadership of Massey leaves a lasting legacy that has impacted countless lives within and beyond our community,” Rappley said.