Knowledge, Experience, and the Gift of Hope

Issue Date: 
March 1, 2010

Nancy Davidson brings scientific expertise, groundbreaking research to her job as director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute

Nancy DavidsonNancy Davidson

Armed with extensive knowledge and experience in breast cancer research and treatment, Nancy Davidson became director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI) and the UPMC Cancer Centers in February 2009. Along with her top-notch academic and clinical experience, the internationally renowned cancer researcher brings one other essential tool to her post: the gift of hope.

Davidson manages all aspects of UPCI’s cancer research, clinical care, and educational activities, which have grown exponentially since the institute’s founding more than two decades ago by UPMC. Some 36,000 patients from across the nation and the world seek expert care each year at Hillman Cancer Center—UPCI’s flagship treatment and research facility—along with a network of more than 40 locations in the region and abroad.

Today, as Davidson embraces her leadership role there, she recognizes the world-class legacy she has inherited from UPCI’s first director, the acclaimed oncologist Ronald Herberman.

“I have come to one of the best cancer centers in the country,” she says. “My overall goal is to take advantage of all the resources here to make a difference in how we take care of cancer, how we allow people to live beyond cancer, and how we prevent cancer.”

Davidson also holds the titles of Hillman Professor of Oncology and associate vice chancellor for cancer research. Prior to joining Pitt, she served as director of the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center’s Breast Cancer Program in Baltimore and as professor of oncology in the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, where she also held the Breast Cancer Research Chair in Oncology.

One of three children born of two geologists, Davidson spent her childhood years in Denver until high school, when her father took a post in India searching for phosphates for the fertilizer industry. Davidson originally set out to be an archeologist but was drawn to oncology while working in a liver cancer laboratory as a Wellesley College undergraduate. One summer during her studies at Harvard Medical School, she accepted a job doing breast cancer research at the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

“It was a life-defining event for me,” says Davidson, who earned a medical degree at Harvard in 1979. “I became captivated by the challenge of breast cancer—one of the first cancers where biology and cancer behavior were at the forefront of our thinking.”

At the time, some early research began to draw connections between hormonal changes and breast cancer. About 70 percent of breast cancers produce a certain protein that grows in response to the hormone estrogen. This estrogen-receptor protein plays a role in the development of some forms of breast cancer. Drugs designed to disrupt these estrogen-related molecular interactions were among the first cancer treatments to home in on a specific biological pathway in the quest to stop the disease.

In her tenure as a medical staff fellow at NCI and later as the head of the Breast Cancer Program at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins, Davidson devoted much of her effort to studying how these targeted endocrine therapies worked as a way to refine and improve treatments, especially for premenopausal women with breast cancer. She published key findings on the role of hormones on the molecular and cell biology of breast cancer and the mechanisms that regulate the disease beyond the realm of pure genetics—for instance, how environmental factors can lead to cancer-causing changes in gene function without altering the DNA itself.

Dedicated to translating these promising lab discoveries into new medical treatments, Davidson helped organize the Translational Breast Cancer Research Consortium, a collaborative network of scientists from 16 academic medical centers working together to improve understanding of the disease and test new therapeutic strategies. She also guided major clinical trials for several first-line drugs, resulting in outcomes that now mean early breast cancer is no longer a death sentence for most women.

Davidson’s expertise as a scientist also is brought to bear in the clinic, where she forms close, lasting bonds with her patients as she helps them navigate their cancer journeys. And she doesn’t shy away from the tough challenges, either. In fact, she receives referrals from physicians nationwide for some of the most complicated and difficult cases. Her experience and her work have taught her that hope isn’t a fantasy.

“I am a better doctor for people who have problems, and there’s no question that someone who has a diagnosis of cancer has a problem,” Davidson says. “But the common concept of oncology—that cancer equals death—is just not the case anymore. There are many, many people who develop cancer, get appropriate therapy, and then move on with the rest of their lives.”

She recently ended a term as president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), the world’s largest organization of cancer physicians. At ASCO, she worked to craft federal legislation to improve access to care for uninsured cancer patients and established a task force to devise ways to rein in the skyrocketing cost of cancer treatment, says the organization’s CEO, Allen S. Lichter.

“Nancy is a natural leader and people want to follow her,” says Lichter. “She articulates her positions well and has a special way of being direct without being blunt. She’s a good consensus builder and commands a well-deserved level of respect among her peers. These are the types of things that make her a significant leader and what will make her a tremendous success at Pitt.”

Davidson is working to renew the center’s NCI core grant, which will sustain key functions and prime future progress. Another goal is to help ensure that scientific discoveries move more quickly from bench to bedside, so patients throughout UPCI’s affiliated hospital network—and ultimately cancer patients everywhere—benefit quickly from the University’s innovative research. She seeks to cement Pitt’s strengths in fields such as cancer immunology and virology, while enlisting departments such as computational and structural biology to figure out what makes cancer cells tick at the most fundamental level.

Moving forward, Davidson—who has won numerous awards and honors throughout her career—also will begin to grapple with helping UPCI to fulfill its aspirations of being among the top five academic cancer centers in the country. “Of course, our most important ranking is how we do with our patients and against cancer,” she says.

Davidson is aware of the profound impact her work has on the lives of women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. This helps her stay focused on her ultimate mission at Pitt—to bring the world closer to a cure for all types of cancer. Although progress has been made in recent decades, cancer still is responsible for about 560,000 deaths annually and remains a leading killer of Americans.

Cancer, which is actually a collection of more than 200 diseases, remains a complex and formidable foe. In her role with UPCI, Davidson will continue to build an impressive arsenal of experts, technologies, and scientific firsts to disrupt and dismantle malignant processes. And she’ll rely on another strength, too: “I have learned from my patients that people are amazing in the way they operate under adversity of all types, that people are survivors.”

(Aspects of this article were drawn from Jennifer Bails’ feature story, “The Science of Caring,” which appeared in the summer 2009 issue of Pitt Magazine.)