Baltimore, MD - - Ralph Hruban, MD of Johns Hopkins Medicine is, by any reasonable definition, an incredibly distinguished man.
He is Director of the Sol Goldman Pancreatic Cancer Research Center at Johns Hopkins Medicine, the Chair of at the venerable institution’s Pathology Department, the author of over 600 peer-reviewed manuscripts (and five books, including the standard textbook on pancreatic pathology, AFIP Fascicle on Tumors of the Pancreas, and the World Health Organization “blue book” on tumors of the digestive tract). He is one of the nation’s most lauded and recognized researchers currently working in the field of pancreatic cancer research. The list goes on. In his personal life, he has seen his three daughters attend his alma mater, the University of Chicago (where he also met his wife, Claire) and embark on exciting careers of their own.
You might think (reasonably), that thirty years into such a remarkable and noted career he might treat himself, every now and then, to a relatively lax schedule.
You would be wrong.
Dr. Hruban typically sees his days start around 4:45am. He uses his pre-dawn hours to answer emails, edit journals/manuscripts, and read the latest scientific literature. He is in the door at Hopkins by 7am, and spends his days consulting on surgeries, examining laboratory work, and overseeing approximately 2,000 employees. He usually remains in the hospital until at least 6pm, and - following dinner with his family - he is apt to “unwind” behind the desk in his home office. His favorite part of the day, he says, is when he is helping patients, and is “actively in the trenches,” fighting pancreatic cancer.
In conversation, Dr. Hruban’s passion for his work and for the culture of Hopkins Medicine is immediately apparent. He speaks glowingly of his colleagues, and plainly and powerfully about his credo: the application of science to medicine, with the goal of alleviating human suffering.
“I came into the field of pancreatic cancer kind of by accident,” offers Dr. Hruban, during a rare moment of unoccupied time. “I began my academic career studying heart and lung transplantation.” Indeed, it was early in his career at Hopkins, while serving as a faculty member that Dr. Hruban heard his colleague, Dr. John Cameron (then Hopkins’ Chairman of Surgery), had recently completed his first 100 Whipple procedures, and was eager for someone to review the pathology. “On a whim – I volunteered,” recalls Dr. Hruban. “The challenge inherent to the field struck me immediately; it was obviously so massive. And I love challenges.”
It is a challenge that, by all accounts, Dr. Hruban has met with gusto. During his tenure at Hopkins, he has helped build a lab renowned for the quality and seriousness of its work. He has led research geared towards understanding the noninvasive precursor lesions from which invasive pancreatic cancers develop (PanINs and IPMNs); studied why pancreatic cancer aggregates in some families; conducted extensive inquiries into the pathologic ramifications of genetic alterations in the pancreas; and has applied molecular genetics to the study of noninvasive precursor lesions in the pancreas and to patients with histories of familial pancreatic cancer.
“There’s been incredible progress. When I first started studying pancreatic cancer, as a disease, it really wasn’t understood at all, [...] today, in many ways, it is one of the most thoroughly understood of all cancers."
“Some people who look at pancreatic cancer research from a distance are disappointed that science hasn’t yet developed the test,” offers Dr. Hruban. But within the lab, Dr. Hruban explains, “there’s been incredible progress. When I first started studying pancreatic cancer, as a disease, it really wasn’t understood at all, especially when you’re talking about the science behind it and the genetics. But today, in many ways, it is one of the most thoroughly understood of all cancers. In the lab, we’ve mapped genomes, studied precancers and pancreatic secretions - we’ve really examined it on all levels, and we understand a lot of what’s happening at the molecular level in the cancer itself. And that’s important. It is going to pay dividends. Our studies are leading us to understand what populations are most at risk, and they are pointing out the populations we should work to develop screens for. Understanding the enemy’s battle plan is what is going to help us win each individual battle.”
Dr. Hruban’s drive is a constant source of inspiration for his partners at the Rolfe Pancreatic Cancer Foundation. “He was one of the first people we connected to as a Foundation,” remembers founding board member Lisa Burik. “We found him not long after we lost my dad (the Foundation’s namesake, Michael Rolfe). My husband and I visited his lab, and we were really impressed. The lab was extraordinary, but Dr. Hurban himself – he was, and is, so focused. So obviously determined. And he really brought us into his plans. He showed you how X could lead to Y, and illustrated how specific dollars could garner specific results.”
“Dr. Hruban has been much more than a grantee for us,” echoes Rolfe Foundation Executive Director Lynda Robbins. “He’s always been a ready and willing resource for the patients who come to us in crisis. He takes every phone call, takes pains to connect, and exhibits exceptional empathy.”
The admiration is most certainly returned via a two-way street. “My association with the Rolfe Foundation has honestly been one of the most satisfying relationships of my career,” explains Dr. Hruban. “Long-term support is a spectacular gift for scientific researchers. The Rolfe Foundation has been an active and informed partner, and their backing has allowed our team to pursue avenues of research we would have otherwise been unable to explore, and to develop truly novel approaches to the early detection of pancreatic cancer. During our partnership, over 200 scholarly papers have come out of Hopkins, published in top journals, on early detection, all of which credit the work and contributions of the Rolfe Foundation.”
Beyond his practical and professional appreciation of the Foundation’s support, Dr. Hruban also finds the backing from Chicago poetic. “I love visiting Chicago for Foundation events. I grew up in Chicago in Hyde Park, I’m a huge White Sox Fan, and whenever I attend a Rolfe fundraiser, I stay at my mom’s house, in my old high school bedroom.”
In fact, following his graduation from the University of Chicago (and for years after), Dr. Hruban says he assumed he would move home again, and support the scientific community of Chicago. “Instead,” he posits, “in a way, home followed me. And the philanthropic community of Chicago has supported me here.”
When asked what perspective he would share with young medical students and researchers on the cusp of beginning their careers, Dr. Hruban immediately offers up an answer which seems to perfectly encapsulate his own career: “I’d tell them that if they wanted to really and truly improve the lives of others, there’s only one thing for them to do: ask the tough questions. There’s a difference between interesting science and important science – work on important science. Work to find the answers to the hard problems no one has yet solved. Grapple with the hard stuff. It’s the tough stuff, certainly, and it won’t be easy, but the hard work is the important work, and that’s where you make the difference.”
Published: March 15th, 2016
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This article also appears as part of the Rolfe Pancreatic Cancer Foundation’s
electronic newsletter, The Catalyst (Vol. 2, March 2015 - the profiles issue). To
read more dispatches from The Catalyst, please click the links below.