Sitting down with cancer researcher Robert DiPaola

Robert DiPaola, MD, cancer researcher and dean of the University of Kentucky College of Medicine.
Robert DiPaola, MD, cancer researcher and dean of the University of Kentucky College of Medicine.

In 2016, Robert DiPaola, MD, was hired as the dean of the UK College of Medicine. DiPaola arrived at UK after serving as the director of the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey and brought with him an extensive cancer research portfolio as well as years of experience kick-starting impactful translational science.

Although his responsibilities as dean cover a  wide array of programs and endeavors beyond the realm of cancer, DiPaola’s prior experience as the director of a National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center has helped create a powerful partnership between the College of Medicine and the UK Markey Cancer Center.

DiPaola sat down to discuss the cancer research he brings to UK and how his role as dean of the College of Medicine can help Markey achieve its lofty goals.

Describe your prior experience as a cancer researcher.

I started out in the translational research arena  with a focus on genitourinary malignancies and prostate cancer. I helped to launch several smaller local trials and then, over time, I ended up designing more trials nationally. I was then elected to chair the GU Committee of the Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group, and that’s where our team got to launch  some phase III clinical trials that had an impact on changing the standard of care.

I’ve really been involved with every phase of research, from the lab that did the preclinical modeling to designing early trials – phase I, II and then phase III – where we were looking to change the standard of care. I had the opportunity to go back and forth from the lab to the clinic. I’d see the clinical problems and then work to figure out how we could tackle those back into the lab. I encourage the development of multidisciplinary teams knowing that a team approach could have greater impact to help discovery be translated to patients.

What are you most proud of as a cancer researcher?

Fostering the development of multidisciplinary research teams to best improve the standard of care for patients. When I was in the lab, I worked to create preclinical models that could help us develop new clinical trials with a focus on drug resistance. We’re trying to answer the question: What’s the next treatment for a patient who is resistant to current standard therapies?

Will you continue cancer research at UK given your leadership role?

Yes, I will continue to work on our research on autophagy – the process in which cells are destroyed. We published a paper earlier this year, on a preclinical model for prostate cancer. Now we’re planning to do preclinical studies to look at this process as a drug resistance mechanism and design clinical trials going forward. I will also be involved in some early clinical trials research as a multiple principal investigator of a UM1 grant with Ohio State University.

In your role as dean, how can you help tackle the cancer challenges we see in Kentucky?

I would say addressing the overarching health issues in Markey’s catchment area, which includes the minority and underserved populations across Kentucky. High rates of cancer mortality, obesity and tobacco use are some of our greatest challenges. What can we do to help this population? That’s what we as an academic health system have to answer.

“We’re the hub of health care in Kentucky, and we have the potential to really enhance our transdisciplinary, translational research efforts.”
– Robert DiPaola, MD

One thing that I can do is help make all those efforts that are relevant to cancer more cohesive so Markey can leverage more opportunities – whether it’s opportunities in expertise, additional researchers or infrastructure.

How are you working with Markey leadership to enhance the cancer research happening across UK's campus?

One thing we’ve worked together on is co-recruitment. We’re in the process of hiring a new chair in the College of Medicine, but this person will also have a major role at Markey in developing and leading new research endeavors. It’s a way to align things optimally for Markey across the organization.

We have the potential to make an impact, and I want the College of Medicine to be helpful in any way possible. Mark Evers and I have a great partnership and we talk almost every day. I met Mark before coming to UK and always thought he was an incredible director, leading Markey toward a bright future and bringing people together.

What most excited you about working with Markey?

I think it’s the strength we have here in research and the responsibility we have to the people of Kentucky. We’re the hub of health care in Kentucky, and we have the potential to really enhance our transdisciplinary and translational research efforts.

Those efforts must cut across everything we do at UK – all areas of science, all areas that could positively impact patients and the people of the Commonwealth.