Winship Continues to Serve and Grow

Robert W. Woodruff might not recognize the Winship Cancer Institute of today. After several decades of providing first-rate cancer care, Winship received an infusion of energy and resources in the late 1990s that, once again, had the hand and heart of Robert W. Woodruff in it.


Slideshow key

1. Michael Johns, left, and Jonathan Simons break ground on the building that would become today's Winship Cancer Institute.

2. Gov. Roy Barnes announces the Georgia Cancer Coalition. Simons, Bill Sexson and School of Medicine Dean Thomas Lawley listen. 

3. Radiation oncologist Mylin Torres helps a patient prepare for treatment.

4. Winship's current leaders, from left, Walter J. Curran, Jr., Fadlo R. Khuri, and Charles Staley, chief of surgical oncology. 

And, once again, the effects would be life-changing—and life-saving. They started in August, 1996, just after the Olympic Games in Atlanta. The Robert W. Woodruff Foundation Inc., the Joseph B. Whitehead Foundation, and the Lettie Pate Evans Foundation jointly designated a portion of their Coca-Cola stock to be set aside, with all dividend earnings to go to Emory's Woodruff Health Sciences Center, which had been established in 1966 to focus on the missions of teaching, research, health care. and public service. The estimated value of the stock in 1996 was $295 million. At the time, The Chronicle of Higher Education suggested that this endowment was likely the largest single commitment ever made in American higher education. 

The endowment was called the Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Fund, Inc. Its purpose was to support the Woodruff Health Sciences Center in meeting two primary goals: build the infrastructure of people and programs required for the Center to rapidly take its place among the nation's leading academic health sciences centers, and to align the Center's resources and momentum in the directions in which science, medicine, and patient care are expected to head in the 21st century.

In accordance with its original design, half of the annual income from the Fund, Inc. supports programs and facilities of the Winship Cancer Institute.  The generous contributions from the Fund Inc. enabled Emory to build the 275,000 square-foot Winship Cancer Institute building.

Propelled in large part by this extraordinary gift, within a decade, Winship would: move into the state-of-the art building, attract dozens of top–tier scientists from around the world; become one of an elite cadre of National Cancer Institute–designated cancer centers – and bring hope and healing to thousands of Georgians and residents of other states.

A big boost also occurred in 2000. It started with an idea hatched by Michael Johns, Emory chancellor and emeritus executive vice president for health affairs and the late Hamilton Jordan, former President Jimmy Carter's White House Chief of Staff. Jordan had endured six bouts of cancer. Johns and Jordan put together a presentation to accelerate cancer prevention, research, and treatment in Georgia.

They took their presentation to then-Gov. Roy E. Barnes, who echoed the vision of Winship's founder decades earlier when Woodruff declared that no resident of Georgia—not just Atlanta —should have to leave the state for the best cancer care. In the fall of 2000, Barnes announced the concept of the Georgia Cancer Coalition. In 2001, the Distinguished Cancer Clinicians and Scientists Program was initiated to attract renowned researchers to Georgia's academic medical centers.

Jonathan Simons, a prostate cancer specialist recruited from Johns Hopkins, had become the new director of Winship in 2000. He was an integral part of the planning and construction of the new building that would allow bench-to-bedside research and treatment; it was his idea to have Winship's core values embedded in the stairways.

After Simons' departure, Brian Leyland-Jones was appointed director. He came to Atlanta from McGill University. Under his direction, Winship earned the prestigious National Cancer Institute Cancer Center Designation in 2009. With this designation, Winship joined the ranks of the most elite cancer centers in the country.

Leyland-Jones stepped down shortly after the designation. Walter J. Curran, Jr., chairman of Emory's Department of Radiation Oncology, was then appointed Executive Director of Winship. Curran, who joined Emory in 2008 from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, is internationally recognized in the treatment of patients with locally advanced lung cancer and brain tumors. He continues to serve as the Lawrence W. Davis Chair of Radiation Oncology and is the only radiation oncologist in the country to lead an NCI-designated cancer center.

"I am very pleased with where we are, and I'm proud of our dedicated physicians, nurses, scientists, and everyone who works at Winship," he says. "What makes me the happiest at the end of the day, however, is knowing that we are making a difference in people's lives. We are lessening the burden of cancer in this state, which is what Robert Woodruff wanted his legacy to be. We are keeping his vision alive and doing the work he wanted people to do."

Curran and others note that while many have contributed to the Winship Cancer Institute's elite status, its current deputy director, Fadlo R. Khuri, has been a driving force of leadership and vision throughout Winship's dynamic decade. Khuri came to Winship from MD Anderson in 2002, and he has recruited many of the nation's brightest physicians and researchers to Winship.

"He also has played an integral role in keeping them here," Curran says.

Khuri says that has more to do with Winship and its values than with his efforts.

"Winship has built a national reputation among physicians, nurses and researchers as being a place where hard work, integrity and collaboration are encouraged and appreciated," says Khuri. "We have worked hard to build a culture I think Mr. Woodruff would be proud of—a culture in which accomplishments of the group are valued and celebrated more than individual accomplishments."

Since the building dedication, Winship has hired close to 100 new clinical and laboratory investigators. Areas of excellence are difficult to point out because there are so many—drug development, patient care, nursing, supportive oncology and survivorship, a phase I clinical trial division, basic science, experts in areas ranging from bone marrow transplantation to new treatments for multiple myeloma, lung cancer biomarker identification, head and neck cancer, and triple negative breast cancer.  Winship and Emory Healthcare recently announced an agreement to bring proton beam therapy to Atlanta, which will make Winship one of only a handful of cancer treatment centers in the country to offer this precise form of radiation therapy.

Winship faculty are helping drive the national cancer conversation by publishing dozens of papers in high-impact journals and by their presence and leadership roles at the nation's leading cancer symposia.  A recent survey of National Institutes of Health grant funding in 2011 lists Curran, whose NIH research funding totaled $16,074,557 last year, as the only researcher in Georgia and the only NCI-designated cancer center director to be among the top 25 in NIH grant funding. And Khuri is editor of the prestigious, peer-reviewed journal Cancer, published by the American Cancer Society.

The value embedded on Winship's bedrock level, where Curran keeps his office, is "Compassion." On Valentine's Day, survivor Deana "Rosie" Collins celebrated her last day of treatment on that tunnel-level floor. She was so happy that she painted a banner that read "Tunnel of Love; you are loved!" She passed out gifts to those who were part of her treatment plan. She handed out Valentine-decorated cupcakes to patients. 

You have to think that Robert Winship Woodruff would be more than a little proud—and that his parents, Ernest and Emily, would be happy knowing how their love story still plays out and the immeasurable good that their son accomplished because of it.

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