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VCU Massey Cancer Center's New Director Makes History, Begins Initiative to Bring Science to the Community

Dr. Robert Winn
Dr. Robert Winn, director of the VCU Massey Cancer Center (Photo: Charles Fishburne/VPM News)

VCU Massey Cancer Center made history when it named Dr. Robert Winn its first African-American directorthis past December. 

Winn said his 93-year old grandmother had tears of joy in her eyes when she heard the news.  “My grandmother grew up here in the 1930s and 1940s. The Virginia she knew was that of segregation.”

He says the most historic aspect of his appointment is that out of the 71 NCI designated cancer centers in the United  States in 2020, only one has an African-American director. “It’s not lost on me what my role is.  But it’s also not lost on me [what] my role here in Virginia [is], as we start thinking about the history of Virginia and the ability of Virginia to really write a new history for itself.”

In addition to directing the activities of Massey’s 205 research members, researchers and physicians from 38 departments in 3 colleges and 4 schools at VCU, he also manages a research laboratory.

Winn came to Massey from the University of Illinois Cancer Center in Chicago where he was director.  He is the principal investigator on several community-based projects funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute and has received national and international acclaim for his efforts to support underserved populations.  He is also a pulmonologist, and currently working on NIH-supported research into the cellular pathways that drive the progression of lung cancer.

But, he says his role here is also educational. He says he takes “science to the people and people to the science.” A recent example of that aspect of his work at Massey was a survey of 2,000 local residents, asking about health issues, lifestyles, and financialchallenges.  He believes “big data” can be used to allow precision medicine and promote partnerships with both rural and underserved urban clinics.  He says, “We are trying to become a 21st century cancer center in which we don’t have people come to us, driving 90 to 120 miles, but [we] get to them!”

Reaching out to those patients is as much of a struggle as the basic science of coming up with new miracle drugs Winn says, and that outreach has a similarly large payoff.  “We know that your zip code, where you live, is probably five times more likely to determine your overall outcome, whether it’s good or bad than your DNA.”

In Chicago, he partnered with established hospitals and clinics to provide prevention and screening programs, community health centers for free screenings, and even helped establish the Wellness House for Living with Cancer to support families of cancer patients with supportive therapy and survivorship programs. He says, “We’re about going where everyday people are and bridging the gap between what happens in a scientific lab and what people experience in real life.”

But his role at VCU goes even one step farther than his regular, daily responsibilities. He says he was hired to take Massey Cancer Center to the next level - from being an NCI-designated cancer center to becoming an NCI Comprehensive Cancer Center. That designation, he says, "means you have not only a type of organization, a type of discipline and rigor, that allows you to do better science, to offer more clinical trials, but the bottom line, it allows us to save more lives and put more people to work.  More patients, more grants, much more federal dollars.”

Criteria for the designation include, “How much research do you have, show that you have a robust population health program, excellent community outreach and engagement and clinical trials.”  He plans to submit their application by 2022. Virginia does not yet have a comprehensive cancer center. He says, “I am driven to make sure that Virginia deserves to have a comprehensive cancer center in the state.”

Winn says he is happy to be part of writing a new history for Virginia.  As for his grandmother, he says, “It is not lost on her that her grandchild, in her lifetime, was able to come to Virginia and be able to lead a designated center here.  She was so proud of Richmond. She was so proud of Virginia.”


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