Gaze upward in the atrium of the Advanced Research Center at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital to behold the vast possibilities of science. This building, with its gleaming laboratories, is a testament to the spirit of discovery, a massive space to explore and push boundaries. As scientists move their labs into the imposing structure this summer, the excitement is palpable. Not only does the moment mark a new beginning for the research community, but it occurs at the start of an $11.5 billion strategic plan that offers world-changing potential.
“It is an exciting time for St. Jude,” says James R. Downing, MD, the hospital’s president and chief executive officer.
Under Downing’s guidance, the institution recently completed its largest expansion in history. Among other feats, the hospital increased the number of patients in its clinical trials, recruited outstanding faculty and staff, reimagined its international outreach efforts, enhanced laboratory research, invested in technology and expanded the campus.
Incredibly, St. Jude stands poised to do more.
The challenge before us
In spite of survival gains, 1 in 5 children with cancer in the U.S. still die of their disease. Certain pediatric cancers remain incurable. For others, success has plateaued. Globally, the outlook is much worse, with 8 of 10 childhood cancer patients dying. Cures also remain elusive for those with neurologic disorders and some nonmalignant blood diseases.
A few years ago, Downing enlisted more than 200 employees to ponder these challenges. He posed two provocative questions: “How can we uniquely accelerate progress for children in Memphis and around the globe?” and “If not St. Jude, then who?’”
The 2022–27 St. Jude Strategic Plan answers both questions.
The plan outlines areas where St. Jude can contribute toward progress: fundamental science, childhood cancer and other life-threatening diseases, global impact, and workforce and environment.
“We can make a major difference in the world by focusing our resources, our energy, our intellect, on these problems,” Downing says.
Focus on fundamental science
Medical advances are born in the minds and hearts of scientists who use a basic understanding of biology to make discoveries and generate new knowledge. That’s why St. Jude will invest about $1 billion in fundamental science during the next six years.
Building on momentum from the last strategic plan, the institution will increase the number of faculty in basic research departments by 33%; develop new shared resources, technology centers and centers of excellence; and enhance data sciences. The St. Jude Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences will also increase enrollment and add degree programs.
Focus on childhood cancer
For nearly 60 years, St. Jude faculty and staff have worked to advance cures for children with cancer. During the next six years, the hospital will expand clinical care and research by developing new approaches to curing the incurable, to reducing the long-term side effects of treatment, and to creating a world where every child benefits from our discoveries.
“Cancer is remarkably complex,” says Charles Roberts, MD, PhD, executive vice president and director of the Comprehensive Cancer Center. “We need dedicated research to understand exactly what is going on in cells and what goes wrong when they develop cancer. It’s only with that level of insight that we are likely to be able to cure all children with cancer.”
St. Jude scientists want to identify the most promising therapies — whether developed at St. Jude or elsewhere — and move them rapidly and safely from the laboratory to the bedside. Researchers will explore new ways to harness the power of the immune system to treat solid tumors and brain tumors. Providers will also enhance the care delivered at the hospital’s affiliates and expand clinical trials so that St. Jude can reach more patients across the nation and the world. Through those efforts, researchers will work to reduce the lasting side effects of cancer treatment, thus ensuring a better life for all survivors.
Focus on childhood catastrophic diseases
Although pediatric cancer has been a major focus of St. Jude since its inception, the hospital has also developed transformative programs in other life-threatening disorders. These include sickle cell disease, hemophilia, HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases. Now, St. Jude will expand its research and treatment programs to advance cures for life-threatening diseases of childhood.
The $1.1 billion investment includes work in nonmalignant hematological diseases, such as sickle cell disease; a new laboratory-based research program in childhood infectious diseases; and a new research and clinical program to better understand and treat pediatric neurological diseases.
Focus on global impact
To address the health care disparity of children who live in limited-resource countries, St. Jude will more than triple its investment in international efforts coordinated through St. Jude Global and the St. Jude Global Alliance.
“The No. 1 predictor of who will survive cancer is where that child lives,” says Carlos Rodriguez-Galindo, MD, executive vice president and director of St. Jude Global. “We are committed to making sure that every child everywhere has access to quality care and that every child has the chance to be cured.”
The new strategic plan calls for expanding educational programs so that health care workers worldwide can obtain the training they need to treat children with cancer. St. Jude will work to strengthen the systems needed to deliver that care, as well as crucial research infrastructure. The hospital will also create seven international operational hubs across alliance sites, which span more than 140 institutions across 50-plus countries.
In collaboration with World Health Organization, other U.N. agencies and international organizations, St. Jude will develop a Pediatric Cancer Global Drug Access Program. This program will distribute an uninterrupted supply of anti-cancer drugs for childhood cancer treatment in low- and middle-income countries.
“By 2027, we will have started a global movement to reach out to every single child with cancer,” Galindo says. “It will be unstoppable.”
Focus on workforce and environment
The strategic plan will ensure that St. Jude remains a place where teamwork flourishes; internal and external collaboration thrives; and employees can make a difference in children’s lives. The plan calls for more than doubling the St. Jude Research Collaboratives program, in which experts from different institutions unite to answer complex scientific questions. The hospital’s blue-sky process, which solicits mission-related, game-changing ideas outside of the strategic plan, will also expand, allowing St. Jude to pursue more projects that could transform science and medicine.
In addition, several construction projects will allow employees to do their best work, while enriching the lives of patients and their families.
Focus on the mission — all day, every day
As Downing contemplates the broad scope of the 2022–27 strategic plan, he acknowledges that it is ambitious, even audacious, but grounded in an inspiring and enduring mission.
“This plan is bold,” Downing says. “We’re tackling the hardest problems, and we’re not going to shy away from them.
“It is driven by a dream,” he adds, “the dream of our founder, Danny Thomas—that no child should die in the dawn of life.”
Some photos for this article were taken pre-COVID-19.
From Promise, Summer 2021