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OHSU Knight Cancer Institute Hires ‘Dream Team’ Cancer Researcher Joe Gray

Gray, a renowned genomics expert at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who helps lead a consortium of the nation’s top cancer researchers through the Stand Up To Cancer initiative, will expand on the institute’s lead in making personalized cancer medicine a reality for all patients
Internationally renowned cancer and genomic researcher Joe Gray, Ph.D., of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory will join Oregon Health & Science University’s Knight Cancer Institute and the School of Medicine. Gray is known for, among other things, developing the FISH test that transformed how treatments are selected for breast cancer patients. He co-leads the Stand Up To Cancer initiative’s “Breast Cancer Dream Team,” serves as a key player in the Cancer Genome Atlas Project and is spearheading the use of computer models to predict how promising targeted therapies will work in attacking cancer cells.

Gray will head OHSU’s newly created Center for Spatial Systems Biomedicine, which will use a combination of physics, biomedical engineering, chemistry and biology to study how cancer cells grow. He also will serve as the new chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering and will contribute to OHSU’s strategic alliance with Portland State University to elevate research conducted by both institutions through shared resources and capabilities. He will be joined at OHSU by members of his current research team.

Advancing research into personalized cancer medicine with experts such as Gray is part of the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute’s strategic plan to leverage the $100 million gift from Nike Chairman Phil Knight and his wife, Penny.

“Bringing Joe Gray to the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute is like signing Michael Jordan to your team, back when Jordan was changing how basketball was played. Joe is one of the top minds in cancer research and genetic testing and his approach is changing how quickly advances in the lab will be able to help patients,” said Brian Druker, M.D., director of the Knight Cancer Institute and associate dean for oncology. “Joe will build on the Knight Cancer Institute’s momentum in working to better understand how cancer grows so that we can find therapies that target the specific cells driving the disease and, ultimately, save more lives.”

Gray, a physicist, is one of the most highly regarded scientists in the field of cancer research. He is known for breakthroughs that have changed clinical practices for cancer patients including aspects of flow cytometry, a technique for counting and examining microscopic particles, such as cells and chromosomes. He also was a key participant in the development of the widely used fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) and comparative genomics hybridization (CGH) tests that map the genetic material in breast cancer patients’ cells.

Because of his background, Gray has been tapped to play leadership roles in the world’s most important and ambitious cancer research projects. He plays an instrumental role in the Cancer Genome Atlas Project, a collaboration of scientists whose objective is to map the genomic characteristics of 20 different types of cancer, work that is illuminating the pathways through which cancer grows. His long list of accomplishments also prompted the nonprofit Stand Up To Cancer initiative to ask him to help lead one of its five “Dream Teams” of scientists from the top research institutions in the nation.

Four strategic initiatives

The Knights’ $100 million gift, along with future donations, are enabling the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute to launch four initiatives designed to transform the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute’s health-care and research operations to deliver personalized cancer therapies.  Those initiatives will: develop a “discovery engine” within the university’s research branch — which will include the new Center for Spatial Systems Biomedicine to be led by Gray — to continue to explore the cellular pathways through which cancer grows; enhance the institute’s comprehensive tissue bank for diagnostics and research; establish the OHSU Knight Diagnostic Laboratories; and refine patient care to tailor treatment plans for each individual’s tumor biology.

The OHSU Knight Cancer Institute’s expansion comes as cancer research and treatment is entering a new phase that was ushered in by Druker’s discovery that cancer cells could be shut down by disabling the molecules that drive their growth. The drug that resulted from that research, Gleevec® – the world’s first targeted cancer therapy – revolutionized the way cancer is treated. It also inspired a new wave of exploration into targeted therapies that zero in on cancer-causing molecules without damaging healthy ones. Because of Druker’s breakthrough research, the Knight Cancer Institute is uniquely positioned at the forefront of the next generation of cancer research and treatment.

“The OHSU Knight Cancer Institute and the School of Medicine are creating a concentration of knowledge and technology that will foster scientific creativity and collaboration. Attracting leaders of Joe Gray’s caliber wouldn’t be possible without the generous support of Phil and Penny Knight and the many other donors who want to help create a better future for families touched by cancer,” said OHSU President Joe Robertson, M.D., M.B.A. “These recruits will enhance the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute’s goal of being a national leader in health and science innovation.”

Gray’s role within the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute and the School of Medicine will include spearheading significant new investments in faculty and technology that will benefit multiple departments within OHSU. Along with heading the OHSU Center for Spatial Systems Biomedicine, Gray will hold the Gordon Moore endowed chair in the Department of Biomedical Engineering.

Next-generation cancer ‘assembly manuals’

Gray said that Druker’s work in leading the next generation of cancer research and OHSU’s emphasis on scientific collaboration were among the reasons he accepted the job.

“I believe that what we’re going to have at OHSU is the absolute state of the art in personalized cancer medicine,” Gray said. “Advances will come from improved detection and treatments that are matched to individuals.  We are going to take advantage of revolutionary advances in measurement science to understand how individual cancers function over time and in different anatomic locations and how they respond to specific therapies so that we can take best advantage of the hundreds of new therapeutic compounds that are now being developed.

“Out in the world today, there may be as many as a thousand different drugs that could be brought to bear on a particular type of cancer,” he said. “We are going to have the analytical tools to learn more about how cancers function so that, ultimately, we’re going to be able to match those drugs to individual cancers.”

Gray has held several influential leadership positions throughout his distinguished career including associate laboratory director for the Biosciences and Life Sciences Division Director, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; professor of Laboratory Medicine, University of California, San Francisco; and cytophysics section leader, Biomedical Sciences Division, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.  He currently is a principal investigator for the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Breast Cancer Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) and the NCI Center for Cancer Systems Biology as well as the Department of Defense Innovator project on early cancer detection.

He has earned numerous awards and honors including the Ernest Orlando Lawrence Award from the U.S. Department of Energy, the Curt Stern Award from the American Society for Human Genetics and a Team Science Award from the American Association for Cancer Research.  He has been elected as a Fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  He serves as a member of the NCI Board of Scientific Advisors and the National Academy of Sciences Nuclear and Radiation Studies Board.   
Under Gray’s leadership, the OHSU Center for Spatial Systems Biomedicine will develop the teams and infrastructure necessary to create next-generation cancer “assembly manuals” describing how molecular aberrations in cancer cells function as a system. As Gray put it, “research in the past several decades has been focused on understanding the molecular components of cancer. The next phase of research will determine how the parts work together. Once you know how the parts work together in individual patients, it will be easier to understand how to develop more effective and durable treatments.”

Through the Center for Spatial Systems Biomedicine, OHSU will establish and support new internal collaborations, as well as academic, government and industry partnerships.  The center will eventually be located in the new collaborative life sciences building planned for the South Waterfront.

Internationally regarded genome scientist Spellman to join Gray

Gray will oversee the recruitment of several new faculty members to the School of Medicine who will hold primary appointments in either basic or clinical departments, depending on the best academic fit.  Key research staff and others will also accompany Gray from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, including internationally regarded genome scientist Paul Spellman, Ph.D., of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Spellman will contribute to research at the Center for Spatial Systems Biomedicine and will serve as a faculty member in the Department of Molecular & Medical Genetics.

Spellman received his Ph.D. from Stanford University School of Medicine where he made major contributions to the development of microarray-based gene expression profiling. His research focuses on the systematic understanding of the genetic causes of cancer and approaches for exploiting these genetic lesions to best treat individual patients.

The OHSU Knight Cancer Institute’s four strategic initiatives will work together to ensure that the research conducted in its “discovery engine,” will benefit cancer patients. The OHSU Knight Diagnostic Laboratories will play a central role in that effort by providing the genetic information necessary to determine which type of treatment will be the most effective for each individual patient. The diagnostic lab services will not only be offered to patients of the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute, but also to other physicians, hospitals and drug companies that don’t have the necessary expertise to perform these studies.

The OHSU Knight Cancer Institute recruited nationally known lab diagnostics professional Marilyn Owens, Ph.D., M.B.A, to serve as chief operating officer of the OHSU Knight Diagnostic Laboratories, which will offer tests that create a detailed genetic map of a patient’s tumor. Owens has extensive experience in starting and managing successful diagnostic laboratories, leading clinical laboratories and clinical trial testing. Much of her career has focused on cancer diagnostics. She was senior vice president of operations for Caris Life Science and has held senior positions at IMPATH Inc., Genzyme Genetics and the Nichols Institute. She has consulted for many public and private testing laboratories. She earned a Ph.D. in medical microbiology and immunology from the University of California, Los Angeles, and her M.B.A. in management and strategy from Pepperdine University.

“The field of personalized medicine is becoming heavily genetic and therefore the most successful testing operations will have a strong base in genetics,” Owens said. “The OHSU Knight Cancer Institute is positioned perfectly not only to compete in that space, but to add new testing rapidly and cost-effectively to benefit patients and physicians in the Pacific Northwest and across the United States.”


Brian Druker, M.D., is director of the Oregon Health & Science University Knight Cancer Institute, associate dean for oncology in the OHSU School of Medicine, JELD-WEN Chair of Leukemia Research at OHSU, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.

About the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute

With the latest treatments, technologies, hundreds of research studies and approximately 400 clinical trials, the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute is the only National Cancer Institute-designated Cancer Center between Sacramento and Seattle— an honor earned only by the nation's top cancer centers. The honor is shared among the more than 650 doctors, nurses, scientists and staff who work together at the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute to reduce the impact of cancer.  Visit or

About OHSU 

The Oregon Health & Science University is the state's only health and research university, and Oregon's only academic health center. OHSU is Portland's largest employer and the fourth largest in Oregon (excluding government). OHSU’s size contributes to its ability to provide many services and community support activities not found anywhere else in the state. OHSU serves patients from every corner of the state, and is a conduit for learning for more than 3,400 students and trainees. OHSU is the source of more than 200 community outreach programs that bring health and education services to every county in the state.

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