by Sandra Gurvis
Since arriving at Ohio State in 1997, Michael Caligiuri, MD, has risen to the top of his field as a respected cancer researcher, admired clinician and mentor, and tireless administrator. He leads Ohio State’s rapidly growing Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute and was recently elected to the National Cancer Institute’s Board of Scientific Advisors.
Michael Caligiuri, MD, might be likened to a modern-day dragon slayer, although he is too down-to-earth to acknowledge this. Along with being the director of The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center (OSUCCC), one of only 40 institutions in the United States to receive the “comprehensive” designation by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), he is chief executive officer of The James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute, the first freestanding cancer hospital in the Midwest. As head of the Caligiuri laboratory, he oversees the efforts of some 25 fellows and students engaged in research on natural killer cell biology, the Epstein-Barr virus, lymphoma and leukemia. Since its inception in 1990, more than 100 students have trained there, receiving some 60 university, state, national and international awards.
The cancer beast should indeed be quaking in its lair. Along with having designed and conducted more than 20 clinical studies for leukemia and lymphoma, and having published more than 400 original articles, abstracts and reviews published on immunology or leukemia, Caligiuri has led Ohio State research efforts encompassing more than $20 million from the National Cancer Institute, including a $9.5 million grant to study immunity in cancer.
Along with holding the John L. Marakas Nationwide Insurance Enterprise Foundation Chair in Cancer Research, Caligiuri has also garnered numerous honors and awards. A professor of Internal Medicine (Hematology and Oncology) and of Molecular Virology, Immunology and Medical Genetics at Ohio State, he also teaches immunology and stem cell biology.
Additionally, he is deeply involved in implementing the Medical Center facilities plan. Known as ProjectONE, this billion-dollar facilities expansion and renovation project includes new cancer inpatient and outpatient buildings, plus training and research spaces. “It will bring researchers, clinicians, students and educators together in state-of-the-art facilities,” says Caligiuri. Along with almost twice the inpatient capacity of the current 172-bed James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute, the new cancer hospital will connect with an oncology ambulatory clinic that will double the current outpatient volume and will have research labs, educational spaces, imaging facilities and a specialty shop catering to women with cancer.
Yet, he hardly considers his many responsibilities a burden. “I’m in cancer research because I love it,” says the youthful-looking father of three grown children, ages 18-22. And that includes every aspect “from working in the lab to writing papers to research to being with students” to traveling the world over as an adviser and lecturer.
The Early Years
Caligiuri came by his calling rather circuitously. “Although I always wanted to be a doctor, I never liked to study science,” recalls the Buffalo native who graduated with a BA in humanities in 1979 from the State University of New York – Buffalo (SUNY/Buffalo). Nevertheless, after receiving an MA in physiology in 1982 and then his MD a year later at Stanford University, he went to Italy to learn more about his other passions: architecture and art history. “It was there that I realized learning was fun, no matter what the subject.”
Renewed with enthusiasm and also motivated by the loss of two close friends to cancer, he pursued a residency in internal medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital at Harvard Medical School and then went on to become a fellow at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, teaching at Harvard as well. “I wanted to figure out the secrets of Mother Nature and what she is hiding, and what she is trying to tell us about how the body works,” which set the stage for his career as a physician-scientist.
In 1990, Caligiuri moved to the Roswell Park Cancer Institute at SUNY/Buffalo as an assistant professor, opening a lab and receiving full tenure four years later. It was during this time that he began to spearhead research on immunology and leukemia: he co-discovered a defect in a gene called MLL that causes the most serious and deadly form of leukemia, acute myelogenous leukemia (AML). Another project evolved into the study of natural killer (NK) cell biology with a “focus on how NK cells work in the body against cancer and how you can juice them up to treat and kill it,” explains Caligiuri. A third area of study was an examination of Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)-associated lymphoid malignancies and novel therapies for clinical treatment.
The lab moved to Ohio State in 1997, when Caligiuri was lured here “by the opportunity to lead a comprehensive, integrated program that offered the cutting-edge in cancer research as well as the largest human cancer genetics program in the country.”
The Quest for a Cure
Caligiuri works toward identifying targeted and specific therapies as opposed to blanket, heavy-duty treatments that might damage otherwise healthy tissues. “In some cases, lower doses work better, allowing the body’s natural defenses to step up to the plate and provide immunity,” points out Robert Baiocchi, MD, PhD, assistant professor of Internal Medicine in Ohio State’s Division of Hematology and Oncology and a Caligiuri colleague for 18 years. Baiocchi is collaborating with the lab on EBV-associated diseases.
“Mike is able to bridge the gap between very basic scientific discoveries and real-world applications,” Baiocchi says. This rare talent enables him to communicate with everyone involved, from research scientists to fellow physicians to patients to corporate leaders and philanthropists who can help generate major funding. “You put them all in the same room with him and great things happen,” says Baiocchi.
“Mike is all about getting to the truth,” continues Baiocchi, who worked as a graduate student in Caligiuri’s Roswell Park lab. “Even when the data don’t go in the direction we expect, he helps us find key elements that will translate our work into meaningful therapies.”
“Mike has an innate ability to motivate without people even realizing it,” adds Matt Strout, MD, PhD, who helped set up Caligiuri’s Ohio State lab while in medical school and is now on the faculty of the Yale Cancer Center. “He has a positive energy that transmits to others and maximizes their ability.”
A phone call from Caligiuri might be a battle cry to join the march against cancer, as Chidimma “Dimma” Mmele Kate Kalu learned when, upon receiving her resume, he contacted her about working in the lab. Kalu, who obtained a BA from Harvard in 2008, will start medical school at Ohio State this fall. “Initially, I’d never considered oncology,” she admits. “But seeing how he inspires others and the fact that it is such an exciting, open-ended field,” has resulted in her seriously considering a career in surgical oncology.
Yet, Caligiuri still finds time to respond to phone calls, answer e-mails personally and have a life with his family, even training for the inaugural Pelotonia bicycling event that will raise millions of dollars for cancer research at Ohio State in August. “We are on the cusp of an incredible growth opportunity,” he observes. “And the more we learn about cancer, the more we realize that we need to use DNA to diagnose, treat and eventually prevent it” so, like the dragon, the dreaded disease will fade into the mists of legend.