Working for a Brighter Future for Kids and Adults

Dr. Denis Guttridge
Dr. Denis Guttridge

With a foot in both worlds – oncology and pediatrics – Denis Guttridge, Ph.D., took on a dual role in May 2018. He joined the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) as director of the Charles P. Darby Children’s Research Institute and associate director of translational sciences for Hollings Cancer Center. The role offers a synergy that promises exciting advances in both fields.

You were recruited to MUSC from Ohio State Comprehensive Cancer Center in May 2013. What was your role there?

I was a professor in the Department of Cancer Biology, and for the cancer center, I was an associate director of basic science. I also led cancer cachexia and pancreatic cancer programs. Cachexia is a condition characterized by extreme weight loss due mainly to muscle wasting that is commonly diagnosed in patients with pancreatic cancer and contributes to a poor prognosis and reduced quality of life.

Can you tell me a little bit about your new dual role here?

The role of the director of the Darby Institute is to bring a research-minded culture to a group of research labs focused on pediatric disease and childhood health. We plan on growing the Institute by recruiting in specific areas, both in childhood health as well as disease. This position also serves to bridge the basic science with the clinical side of the Department of Pediatrics so we can cross pollinate what we do in the lab and what’s done on the treatment side.

“I wouldn’t have taken this position if I didn’t feel the potential. I’m just excited because I’m going to be able to work with a very strong foundation and try to do my best to make it even better.”
- Dr. Denis Guttridge

With the Hollings Cancer Center, this is a great opportunity to engage more basic scientists, just like myself, to think more translationally. It’s about how we can push our discoveries through a translational pipeline, which allows us to work more closely with clinicians and get new therapies to patients via clinical trials.  An additional important component of this pipeline are partnerships that we can build with the pharmaceutical industry, so as to accelerate those discoveries and provide better cancer care. So that’s really what I envision my new position to be. 

How does your dual role reflect an innovative approach to accomplishing this mission?

Yes, it’s unique, and it’s possible because I have wonderful support from Dr. (Gustavo) Leone, cancer center director, and Dr. (Andrew) Atz, chair of pediatrics; the two central components between cancer and children’s research. We want to create a bridge between the cancer center, which mostly deals in adult cancers, and MUSC Children’s Hospital, which has a division in pediatric oncology. So the idea is to strengthen two already great entities at MUSC, and through their alignment, improve on groundbreaking discoveries. This sets up a mechanism to be able to increase our bandwidth, our research, and hopefully more of our treatment options for pediatric cancers. I’m excited to have the opportunity to work alongside with Drs. Atz and Leone, as well as many other talented colleagues at MUSC, in order to focus on children’s cancers so as to make a difference in our pediatric population here in Charleston and South Carolina.

What is your vision for the future of the research institute?

As the director of the institute, I have to be mindful that we have to be great in research on all aspects of what we do, so that covers other areas besides cancer, such as cardiology, critical care, neonatology, kidney disease, gastrointestinal, as well as neuroscience. The department handles all children illnesses as well as childhood health. We want to make our research as strong as possible to be able to support the hospital and then to obviously increase the reputation of Pediatrics and MUSC by doing that. Part of the attraction of being in Charleston is that it’s an ideal size for us to be able to translate to the community the type of basic and clinical science being performed at the Darby Children’s Research Institute - to let them know that the science is at a high caliber, and that we’re going to be putting even more efforts in making the difference in childhood health right there in our community. 

How does translational science, which is part of your role here to nurture, benefit patient care?

A perfect example of that is immune therapy, which has created a big buzz in cancer recently. For years people have been working on our immune system, but somebody had to make the discovery in the laboratory that there were specific immune cells, called T cells, that researchers discovered were present in tumors but were not effectively functioning to fight cancer cells. Someone had to get down to a molecular level to understand exactly what factor was being compromised in the immune system that the tumor cell was able to take advantage of. Once researchers gained insight into this puzzle, finding a way to translate those discoveries to the development of actual drugs through the pharmaceutical industry went much faster.

This has led to some remarkable results in patients’ lives. As researchers, that example in immune therapy is often used to explain the importance of basic research and how fundamental discoveries can be translated to effective treatments. Similar types of immune therapies are being implemented right here at MUSC in both adult and childhood cancers. The importance of basic research can’t be overemphasized. 

What drew you to take this position?

I have a great admiration for the quality of scientists and physicians here at MUSC, which was the first factor that drew my attention, but I also see tremendous potential in expanding that talent. The ability for the bench researcher and the physician to work together on common problems is often discussed at medical centers, but rarely effectively executed. I think the environment at MUSC fosters those types of relationships, and I am a big believer that big breakthroughs can only be accomplished with collaborative science. I’m excited to be part of this environment and to have the opportunity to make significant differences that will impact the health of our community and the people of this state.