If Thomas P. Loughran Jr., MD, were in the military, they’d call him a “quiet professional.”
Fortunately for people impacted by rare blood cancers, and for the work of the UVA Comprehensive Cancer Center, Dr. Loughran chose the career of a physician-scientist.
Recruited in 2013 to lead the Cancer Center to the NCI’s highest level of accreditation, Loughran achieved the goal within eight years. This month, as he marks a decade as Cancer Center Director, his peers express thanks for his transformational leadership, which they say is marked by supportiveness, decisiveness, and perhaps most of all, humility.
“Dr. Loughran is the consummate physician-scientist,” says Robert Dreicer, MD, the Cancer Center’s deputy director and associate director for Clinical Research. “His basic research accomplishments have been translated into the clinic, where he remains the world-wide leader in managing LGL leukemia.”
“He leads by example and allows the folks he has hired to do their jobs, but is always available and provides whatever support is needed to help get the mission accomplished,” Dr. Dreicer adds. “Despite his enormous accomplishments he remains an extremely humble leader, one cannot ask for more in a Cancer Center Director.”
“The Cancer Center’s growth and transformation under Dr. Loughran has supported a broader integration of its work with the School of Medicine and patient care,” says Melina Kibbe, MD, dean of the UVA School of Medicine and UVA Health’s Chief Health Affairs Officer.
“Dr. Loughran’s vision and leadership have created a Cancer Center that is more connected with its institutional partners, as well as the population we serve and our patients,” Dr. Kibbe says. “From a foundation in basic science, he’s built a Cancer Center that supports the continuum of population science, prevention, translational research and care.”
“A major transformation of the Cancer Center’s approach to solving cancer under Dr. Loughran’s vision and leadership was the inclusion of population sciences and its alignment with basic and clinical sciences. This is vital to our mission to prevent and treat cancer in our catchment area,” says Roger Anderson, PhD, the Cancer Center’s associate director for Population Sciences, adding that “I have always had Dr. Loughran’s complete support in this regard.”
Mitchell Rosner, MD, chair of the Department of Medicine, says Dr. Loughran has “the unique ability to bring people together to solve complicated problems.”
“His dedication and enthusiasm, as well as his deep understanding of the operations of cancer centers has propelled UVA to become a national leader,” Dr. Rosner says.
Looking back on his first decade and true to form, Dr. Loughran deflects credit.
“The accomplishment we’re obviously all most proud of is the comprehensive designation, which was why I was hired,” Dr. Loughran says. “It was really a team effort. We had a lot of really great people and have recruited many more. And an enormous institutional investment drove the process – one that went well beyond the initial commitment.”
A native of the Philadelphia area, Dr. Loughran pursued a liberal arts degree as an undergraduate, studying biology at Ursinus College. He attended medical school at the Hahnemann Medical College and served his residency at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, both in Philadelphia.
For his fellowship in medical oncology, Dr. Loughran went to Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where he studied under E. Donnall Thomas, MD, a recipient of the Nobel Prize for developing bone-marrow transplantation. There, during an on-call shift, Dr. Loughran saw a patient with vague symptoms including fever and chronic infections. Examining the patient’s blood, he saw that almost all of the white blood cells had the characteristic morphology of large granular lymphocytes.
Loughran had discovered a previously unknown form of cancer: large granular lymphocyte (LGL) leukemia.
“Most people have to learn on their own that Dr. Loughran discovered LGL leukemia and is the utmost expert on this disease,” Dr. Anderson says, referring to Dr. Loughran’s good nature.
Upon completing his fellowship, Dr. Loughran stayed on at Fred Hutchinson for seven years before serving as Chief of Hematology at the Syracuse Veteran’s Affairs Medical Center, Associate Director of the SUNY Health Science Center’s Bone Marrow Transplant Program, and later as Program Leader of Hematologic Malignancies at the University of South Florida H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute. In 2003 he became founding director of the Penn State Hershey Cancer Institute, where he would spend the next 10 years.
Dr. Loughran was drawn to UVA’s Cancer Center and its pursuit of comprehensive designation for reasons including the parent institution and its resource commitment, as well as the Center’s NCI designation, dating to 1985 with a superior foundation in basic science. His work, however, was cut out for him.
In addition to the NCI’s requirements of transdisciplinary research, excellence in training and enhanced community outreach, in order to attain comprehensive designation, cancer centers must demonstrate “enhanced depth and breadth of basic, clinical, and population research.” In 2013, UVA’s clinical research operation was limited, and the Cancer Center had no population sciences program.
Dr. Loughran scrawled a preliminary strategic plan on a single sheet of paper and flexed what Dina Gould Halme, PhD, Cancer Center associate director for Research Administration and Strategic Planning, calls his “superpower.”
“Tom’s superpower is being able to recruit outstanding people,” Dr. Halme says. “The impact of that is we’ve grown from basic science-focused Cancer Center into the Comprehensive Cancer Center that we are today.”
Recruitment under Dr. Loughran, including Dr. Anderson from Hershey to establish the population sciences program, and Dr. Dreicer from the Cleveland Clinic to lead clinical research, is reflected in the comprehensive designation and in today’s Cancer Center and its work.
The now 40-member Cancer Prevention and Population Health (CPH) Program was successful in its first-ever NCI review for the 2022 comprehensive renewal. The number of clinicians in the School of Medicine’s Division of Hematology and Oncology, a significant driver of clinical research, has grown roughly four-fold in the past decade – growth Dr. Loughran attributes to the work of Michael Williams, MD, the Cancer Center’s associate director for Clinical Affairs and physician lead for UVA Health’s Oncology Service Line. In the four years preceding the Cancer Center’s comprehensive designation, clinical research participation grew 500 percent.
Dr. Loughran’s impact is reflected in the scope of the Cancer Center’s research and its integration with the oncology service line, Dr. Williams says.
“What Dr. Loughran created is really a model for making a matrix cancer center operate effectively and efficiently, optimizing multidisciplinary patient care while also advancing treatment options through clinical research and translational science,” Dr. Williams says.
Along with institutional commitment, Dr. Loughran attributes effective recruitment to collegiality, and to candidates embracing the Cancer Center’s vision. He also seeks to be proactive and move quickly, since UVA is competing for every candidate.
“Dr. Loughran shows up at every recruitment event,” Dr. Anderson says. “He isn’t in the background. He’s assuring candidates that if they come here, we will help them get what they need to be successful. And they get a sense that it would be a nice place to work. They all mention how warm and receptive he was during their meeting.”
Another tactic that drives clinical research and has also supported recruitment: pledging to clinician candidates that a segment of their time will be reserved for research.
Roger Abounader, MD, PhD, the Cancer Center’s associate director for Basic Science, who credits Dr. Loughran for keeping him at UVA, says Loughran is a visionary, open-minded and generous leader who has supported numerous projects including one that is beneficial to both the Cancer Center and international graduate students. International graduate students are ineligible for NIH fellowship grants, requiring primary investigators to incur the cost of their work. Dr. Abounader proposed two-year grants for three international graduate students studying cancer. Dr. Loughran agreed.
“Generally, when you ask people for something that costs a lot of money, their first reaction is to say, ‘No.’” Dr. Abounader says. “Tom is not like this. He will think about it – quickly – and if it makes sense: ‘Yes.’”
Looking forward, Dr. Loughran teases an updated Cancer Center strategic plan that he has worked to align with those of the School of Medicine and UVA Health. A key element of the plan is the work led by the Cancer Center’s new aAssociate Director for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Marquita Taylor, PhD, who joined the team in 2022, to ingrain DEI in everything the Cancer Center does, from recruitment and retention to community outreach, prevention, research and care.
This year also brought the launch of UVA’s Paul and Diane Manning Institute of Biotechnology, under which Cancer Center members will lead research funded with some of the Institute’s $400 million in state and philanthropic funding. The Institute will support continued recruitment, Dr. Loughran says. Another top priority is allocation and awarding of pilot funding grants, which he refers to as “glue money” that fosters research partnerships.
Dr. Loughran also seeks to grow the Cancer Center’s CPH program and Community Outreach and Engagement team’s efforts, because, “the most important thing we could do is prevent cancer from ever occurring.”
In addition to serving as Cancer Center Director, Dr. Loughran is F. Palmer Weber-Smithfield Foods Professor of Oncology Research and Professor of Medicine, Professor of Hematology and Oncology and Co-Director of the Paul Mellon Urologic Cancer Institute. He leads UVA’s LGL Leukemia Program, which includes the LGL Leukemia Registry, the only national database and blood and tissue bank of specimens from patients with the disease.
Dr. Loughran is also the inaugural co-lead along with Owen O’Connor, MD, PhD, of UVA’s Translational Orphan Blood Cancer Research Initiative (TOBCRI), established in 2022 through a $5.75-million philanthropic donation to investigate rare cancers that lack the funding resources afforded to more common diseases. In the Loughran Lab, researchers and staff investigate hematologic malignancies including LGL leukemia and, acute myeloid leukemia as well as peripheral T-cell lymphoma with Dr. O’Connor’s team.
Advances made by Dr. Loughran include establishment of diagnostic criteria and standard of care for LGL leukemia as well as an innovative approach for treatment for T-cell prolymphocytic leukemia (PLL) using a combination of immunotherapy and epigenetic drugs, placing most trial patients in remission. His work under the TOBCRI program with Laboratory Director PI David J. Feith, PhD, includes the evaluation of combination therapies for LGL leukemia, and analysis of the disease’s “genomic architecture” in order to match patients with the ideal treatments.
Johnson Ung, a PhD candidate in UVA’s Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program, has worked in the Loughran Lab for four years researching AML and potential treatments. He was drawn to the lab by its research focus as well as Dr. Loughran’s track record of training successful translational researchers and “the positive, enriching lab culture he has,” which Ung said is also supported by Dr. Feith, Su-Fern Tan, PhD, and Jun Yang, MD.
Ung credits Dr. Loughran’s support with helping him obtain several intramural awards/fellowships and extramural awards, including an NIH F31 Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Science Award and more recently an NIH F99/K00 Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Fellow Transition Award.
“He is not as intimidating as he seems on paper,” Ung says. “He is humorous, charismatic, highly intelligent, and genuinely interested in your success and development. Given the opportunity to start my graduate studies over, I would join Dr. Loughran’s laboratory in a heartbeat.”
One day a week, Dr. Loughran still sees LGL leukemia patients who travel from around the world for his expertise and care.
Ultimately, Dr. Loughran “is somebody who really cares about the cancer patient,” says Amy Bouton, PhD, Cancer Center associate director for Training and Education.
“His goal is to make sure that discovery science is moving at breakneck speed to the lab, and translating to the clinic so that it can help as many patients as possible.” Bouton says.
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