St. Jude CEO Dr. James Downing details ‘bold undertaking’

(courtesy of the Memphis Business Journal)

Putting together a strategic plan for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is no easy feat.

The research hospital’s ever-growing Memphis campus, global aspirations, and pursuit of serious pediatric health conditions — beyond cancer — equals genome-level complexity.

Over an 18-month planning period, more than 200 St. Jude staff members worked on the 2022-27 strategic plan announced Tuesday, April 27.

Over the summer of 2019, Dr. James Downing, president and CEO of St. Jude, put together 10 task forces of about 10-15 members each to focus in on the biggest problems and challenges in pediatric catastrophic diseases.

Reports to St. Jude leadership followed along with higher-level meetings with the St. Jude Board of Governors. Those continued into early 2020, paused for three months, then resumed as St. Jude got a handle on campus safety in the COVID-era.

The genesis of the new $11.5 billion strategic plan set to launch in July 2021 came about from that collaborative process.

“It is a very ambitious plan, a very bold undertaking, one that will take all hands on deck for us to accomplish. But, we are convinced that we are approaching challenges that no other institution can approach.” Downing said.

Memphis Business Journal connected with Downing and Dr. Charles Roberts, EVP and director of the St. Jude Comprehensive Cancer Center, for their insights on some facets of the far-reaching expansion plans.

The following Q&A was edited for clarity and brevity.

MBJ: The plan involves 70 new faculty members. How do you approach bringing that talent here to make this expansion possible?

Dr. James DowningWe get them on campus [to] see what’s going on in this institution, see the strategic plan, and see the vision of moving forward. And, we get them to think about what’s possible, what can they do here that they can’t do at Harvard, at Stanford, and at other great institutions across the United States or in Europe. We’re not 100% successful, but we’re pretty good at getting people to change the course of their career and come join this mission that we have here at St. Jude.

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Dr. Charles Roberts: The resources that are available — the intellectual resources, the financial resources — that is unique and the vision coupled with it. I picked up and moved here [from Harvard] and have not for one moment ever second-guessed my decision. And so, what I see now is a strategic plan that [will] become a hub for collaboration and innovation. A strategic plan that’s 50% larger than the one that got me here five years ago. It’s incredibly exciting.

What will the $3.7 billion in the strategic plan do for all the programs focused specifically on pediatric cancer?

Roberts: The $3.7 billion is focused on kids who have the worst survival rates. A major faculty recruiting effort of 10 new laboratory-based faculty dedicated to childhood cancers, plus all the people that will staff those laboratories. And, [we will be] using the information that comes out of them to accelerate our preclinical and clinical testing of new therapeutic agents that are coming out of our research laboratories.

One example is we have a new initiative in what we call translational immunology and immunotherapy using cellular immunotherapy, so the body’s own immune cells to attack cancer. We’ve now developed a leading program and already have success in leukemias and are now deploying that to attempt to improve cure rates for solid tumors and brain tumors. And then, we take these advances and bring them into clinical trials.

Across the strategic plan, we’re going to be increasing by 30% the number of children who are enrolled in our clinical trials. And so, from laboratory science to translational science to clinical sciences to survivorship, this $3.7 billion has the potential to underwrite major advances in the field.

One billion dollars is earmarked toward research and treatment for sickle cell and other diseases beyond cancer. How can St. Jude move care forward in those areas?

Downing: It’s focused on moving forward gene therapy and gene editing approaches as curative approaches for those diseases. It’s building the infrastructure for the fundamental science to move that forward, and the infrastructure required for moving those kinds of approaches into clinical trials. It’s also providing increased support for the patients and their families. These are chronic diseases that they will have throughout their life.

As we look at COVID-19, we see a new opportunity and we see that St. Jude can contribute to better prepare the world for that next pandemic by developing the research infrastructure to look at the infectious diseases of childhood. As part of this plan, there’s a new center for pediatric infectious disease research and investment of 10 new faculty members and a buildout of a floor in the Advanced Research Center that we’re going to be occupying in about six weeks.

What does this latest expansion mean for the Pinch District and the City of Memphis?

Downing: The expansion is important for Memphis. It’s 1,400 new jobs. And these are, by and large, highly trained individuals coming into the City of Memphis. Many come from outside the city and many from outside the country. That’s an infusion of new, highly trained individuals coming to live in our community. The construction of the new outpatient building, clinical office building, scientific and administrative office building, the new housing project, and the completion of the Advanced Research Center, all of that is new construction, new dollars into the Memphis community, and changing the look of the Pinch District. I hope the investments in the commercial areas of the district continue and accelerate and develop a vibrant neighborhood for St. Jude.

You talk about accelerating progress. How far and wide can St. Jude go beyond this latest expansion?

Downing: Is there a size limit to St. Jude? I think it’s a good question. I don’t know if there’s an ultimate size limit. But over a period of time, there is a limit to how fast an organization can grow. We were at a rate that we felt we could manage, but we were pushing the envelope. This plan is exactly in the same position. We’re at a rate we think we can manage, but we’re at the limit of what we probably can manage. We’re within that limit, but not pushing beyond it. We think we can accomplish what we’re laying out over this next six years.