Case Comprehensive Cancer Center's new director

A targeted Approach

New cancer center leader aims to build connections in Cleveland and well beyond

Gary Schwartz, MD, has long believed precision medicine is the future of oncology. But back in the early ’90s, very few agreed. Cancer care at the time generally followed a “spray-and-pray” approach: Use as much chemotherapy or radiation as the patient could handle in hopes of overwhelming the cancer into submission. Then a physician-researcher specializing in gastrointestinal cancers at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, Schwartz was certain more targeted approaches could succeed. He began sharing his theories and research on the critical importance of prevention and treatment strategies that are tailored to the patient. A dozen years later, he was asked to become the first chief of Sloan Kettering’s new Melanoma and Sarcoma Service. 

I want to cure cancer. It’s as simple as that.’— Gary Schwartz, MD, director Case Comprehensive Cancer Center

The core of its focus: precision medicine.

A history of breaking ground

Throughout his career, Schwartz has established a reputation for providing exceptional care and leading cutting-edge research. After Sloan Kettering, he joined Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center, eventually becoming chief of hematology and oncology and deputy director of its cancer center.

Last spring, he joined Case Western Reserve University as vice dean of oncology for the School of Medicine and director of Case Comprehensive Cancer Center (Case CCC). He was drawn from his lifelong home in New York to Cleveland by the opportunity to lead the renowned Case CCC, a consortium of 400 physician-scientists from Case Western Reserve, Cleveland Clinic, and University Hospitals who provide care for approximately 70% of Northeast Ohio’s cancer patients. Schwartz is the first director of Case CCC to have admitting privileges at both hospitals a testament not only to his desire to build connections but also to share his expertise with as many people as possible.

 In recent years, Schwartz’s work has focused on rare cancers—those that annually affect fewer than 15 of 100,000 people. Such cancers typically don’t garner as much attention as more common cancers, but his discoveries have yielded broad benefits.

While on the faculty at Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center, for example, Schwartz found success in treating the rare cancer liposarcoma by inhibiting the enzyme CDK4 through a drug known as palbociclib. Later, researchers from a different institution found that the drug—now more commonly known as Pfizer’s Ibrance—also prevails against advanced or metastatic breast cancer.

(Such novel thinking may come naturally: His father, Morton Schwartz, was the first to use human tumor tissue to detect a protein specific to prostate cancer; his work was published in Cancer in 1953.)

Seeking a CURE

Schwartz’s focus on bolstering such “trickle-up effects” has attracted substantial support—most recently, a $5 million gift from the Jed Ian Taxel Foundation for Rare Cancer Research (JEDI) to launch CURE: The Rare Cancer Initiative at Case Comprehensive Cancer Center.

The CURE initiative aims to build on Case CCC’s collaborative nature to create a national network of cancer centers and to catalyze innovative approaches to identifying and treating rare cancers. By drawing on these centers’ collective reach, Schwartz believes, researchers can profile rare cancers in thousands of patients and generate a comprehensive map of cancer types. From there, researchers can apply molecular technologies to dissect each component of a tumor at single-cell resolution and, ultimately, develop targeted therapeutic approaches that could defeat rare cancers.

Such a network, JEDI leadership believes, hinges on Schwartz. That’s why when Schwartz moved to Cleveland for his new role at Case CCC, the foundation’s funding followed.

“Having the knowledge—from both the scientific and emotional perspective—and the ability to create a vision of where this can all go is really all about Gary,” said Mark Taxel, chairman and CEO of JEDI, who launched the family foundation after his son, Jed, died of rare cancer six months after diagnosis. “And with the power of Case Western Reserve’s medical school, Case CCC, and other institutions involved, the ability for us to make an impact has grown exponentially. It’s like one plus one equals five.”

This new commitment from JEDI will position Case CCC to “make major inroads in rare cancer—to better recognize the problem, educate the public, help patients navigate their own diseases and, hopefully, understand the biology of these cancers so we can develop innovative therapeutic approaches,” Schwartz said.

Vision for the future

Making Case CCC a hub for rare cancer research is just one of Schwartz’s many priorities. Schwartz follows Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine Dean Stan Gerson, MD, who led Case CCC for nearly two decades. Under Gerson’s leadership, the center earned the National Cancer Institute’s “exceptional” rating in 2018, the highest the institute can bestow. Schwartz hopes to achieve the rating again this spring.

“Cancer remains the most complex disease humans experience. Treatments evolve, progress is made, the cure is hard and suffering is almost intolerable,” Gerson said. “Gary has an incredible passion and urgency to find the cure, one cancer at a time, and to pursue rare cancers with incredible intensity. I am incredibly delighted that he chose to join our center as its leader. Cleveland and the country will benefit for years to come.”

Schwartz wants to ensure that Case CCC serves its entire community including rural residents such as those in East Palestine, Ohio, where a February train derailment sent toxic fumes into the air. The center also engages urban populations in Cleveland through initiatives to ensure Black men—who are 40% more likely to get prostate cancer than white men—get the preventive care and treatment they need.

Yet as renowned as Schwartz is for targeted interventions, his highest goal is far broader. “I want to cure cancer,” Schwartz said. “It’s as simple as that.”

“Cancer remains the most complex disease humans experience. Treatments evolve, progress is made, cure is hard and suffering is almost intolerable. Gary has an incredible passion and urgency to find the cure, one cancer at a time, and to pursue rare cancers with incredible intensity.” — Dean Stan Gerson, MD