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The Q&A: James Willson

In this week's Q&A, we interview James Willson, the director of UT Southwestern's Simmons Cancer Center, which just received a top designation from the National Cancer Institute.

Dr. James Willson is the director of the Simmons Cancer Center at UT Southwestern.

With each issue, Trib+Health brings you an interview with experts on issues related to health care. Here is this week's subject:

James Willson is the director of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center’s Harold C. Simmons Cancer Center, which just received a comprehensive cancer center designation from the National Cancer Institute, the NCI’s top designation. Before coming to UT Southwestern, Willson was the director of the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center in Cleveland, which got the same designation under his tenure. Willson, whose expertise is in the genetics of colorectal cancer, got his M.D. from the University of Alabama and completed a residency in internal medicine at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he rose to chief resident.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Health: What does this designation entail, and why were you selected?

James Willson: The National Cancer Institute’s comprehensive cancer centers represent the top tier of the nation’s academic cancer centers. As a point of reference, this is a group that now numbers 44, who have to demonstrate the extraordinary research capabilities both at the discovery level as well as in clinical trials and outreach to patients who are at risk for cancer, and our task in terms of competing for this recognition is to demonstrate that. We were designated an NCI-designated cancer center five years ago, and the comprehensive designation is recognition that we’re not only doing the extraordinary research but at the same time bringing the fruits of that research to impact our patients and the community.

Trib+Health: How did community partnerships play a factor in this designation?

Willson: Our cancer center represents a partnership between UT Southwestern’s medical school, health system and then our affiliates, Parkland Hospital, Children's Medical Center and the UT Southwestern Moncrief Cancer Institute, as well as the University of Texas School of Public Health Dallas campus. So this is a group of partners that allows us to reach out to the entire Dallas-Fort Worth area and bring our research impact to both clinical care as well as cancer prevention.

Trib+Health: Do you expect this will bring more scientists and researchers to the center?

Willson: It will. Scientists and clinical physicians emphasizing cancer care want to practice in a comprehensive cancer center because they recognize that the ability to make a difference in both cancer research and cancer care requires the types of teams that are working together within the context of a comprehensive cancer center. They seek out that environment as well as the recognition of accomplishment that the NCI recognition means.

Trib+Health: How about patients? How crucial of a factor is it when they select where to get treatment?

Willson: For patients and a family facing a diagnosis of cancer, access to an NCI-designated cancer center means everything. It’s where you want to begin your cancer care and end your cancer care. We do anticipate that the awareness of an NCI-designated comprehensive cancer center in North Texas will have a great meaning in terms of patients seeking access to the cutting-edge care that we offer.

Trib+Health: You’re also getting an $8.1 million grant along with this designation. What will that grant be used for?

Willson: Those funds represent the infrastructure, the foundation, of how we knit together the partnerships that we talked about earlier and facilitate the interactions. On top of that grant is over $120 million annually in grants to individual researchers and clinicians at UT Southwestern who are providing both the research and cancer care.

Trib+Health: You're the first designation of this kind in North Texas. How will this impact the North Texas region?

Willson: The reach of an NCI-designated cancer center is throughout the community in several ways. One is the ability to provide cutting-edge cancer care and access to the latest in cancer treatments and technology. That’s one mechanism. The other is that we are the source of best information, if you will, about cancer and what to do next if you have a diagnosis of cancer, and we very much value the opportunity to inform people that when you have a cancer diagnosis, checking in with us regarding what options exist is very important. That’s a very important part of our mission.

Trib+Health: Now that you have this designation, what’s next for the center?

Willson: It’s a very exciting time for us. We at UT Southwestern and Dallas are growing rapidly with marvelous new clinical and research facilities, and we anticipate that these are going to allow us to make an impact on cancer in our community. Some of the most important challenges we have is the rise in the number of new liver cancer diagnoses that we see. We don’t really understand why [that is], and we have made a high priority attempting to both understand and unravel the mystery of that disease and then develop more effective ways of treating it. That’s just one example.

Trib+Health: What type of cancer research are you most excited about at the center, and how does this designation help those efforts?

Willson: I mentioned the problem our community faces in terms of liver cancer as one example. We are one of the nation’s leading authorities in the research and treatment of lung cancer, which is a leading cancer diagnosis still. And we anticipate continuing to make strides against lung cancer as well as other common cancers that are affecting our community. One additional is renal cancer, where we have extraordinary expertise to bring novel treatments against the disease that until recently was very difficult to treat.

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