The recently reorganized Duke Cancer Institute has a new leader.

Dr. Michael Kastan is slated to assume the role of DCI’s Executive Director August 1. Currently serving as director of the Comprehensive Cancer Center at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Kastan brings with him experience in the clinical, research and administrative aspects of the struggle against cancer.

“I’m very excited about the potential, about being the inaugural director of a construct that I think is a truly visionary approach to cancer medicine,” Kastan said in an interview Tuesday. “I’m quite honored to be chosen as the first individual to direct it.”

Within the oncological community, Kastan is well known for groundbreaking research on the p53 protein, which is frequently linked to tumor formation. He said he plans to continue research while at Duke, focusing on how cells respond to DNA damage and other stresses.

Kastan presided over the cancer center at St. Jude when the National Cancer Institute recognized it as a Comprehensive Cancer Center in 2008. St. Jude was the first pediatric center to receive this title. Kastan majored in chemistry as a Morehead Scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and received his M.D. and a Ph.D. in cell biology from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

Kastan described the changing nature of cancer treatment since President Nixon declared war on cancer in 1971.

“Over the last forty years, our challenge has been that we haven’t had very good drugs,” Kastan said. “Going forward we’ll have too many drugs to test and the challenge is how to test them wisely. The real advances are going to be in being able to identify more specific, more efficacious drugs… personalized medicine at its best, so when we take it to the patient we are using it wisely and knowing how to get the best out of the clinical trials.”

Kastan also discussed the daunting nature of his new position, noting that one major challenge will be deciding how to prioritize among many possible approaches to cancer research and treatment. He said that the initial focus will be on the completion of the new DCI building next February. This seven-story structure will house all varieties of cancer sub-specialists, facilitating patient treatment as well as clinical and translational research.

The newly configured DCI was launched November 4, 2010, in an effort to unite clinical treatment of cancer patients and laboratory cancer research within one organizational structure. Since then, DCI has operated under the supervision of two interim directors—Anthony Means and Dr. Christopher Willett. Means specializes in the research and basic science side of oncology, and Willett focuses on patient care. DCI is one of 40 sites designated a Comprehensive Cancer Center by the National Cancer Institute in 1972. Duke’s cancer program was one of the original eight centers in the country to receive that title.

“We are kind of a test case because, if this unique model works well in an academic setting, there will be other institutions that will want to develop a similar model,” Means said.

Means added that Kastan’s background makes him aptly suited to leading DCI, with its broad spectrum of doctors and scientists.

“He is an M.D. Ph.D.,” Means said. “He is well known in the cancer research community as an exceptionally talented basic scientist, but also known in the clinical field as a very caring and compassionate clinician.”

Dr. Victor Dzau, chancellor for health affairs and president and chief executive officer of the Duke University Health System, described Kastan as “simply the best,” adding that multiple peer institutions were also seeking to hire Kastan when he chose to work at Duke. Dzau envisions a bright future for the new institute and for Kastan’s leadership there.

“By bringing up the institute, I hope we will be among the very top, globally, of cancer care and cancer research, that our patient outcomes will be even better than they are today,” said Dzau. “This is a very critical moment for us in the history of cancer at Duke. Launching the institute, bringing in one of the world’s best cancer researchers and clinicians, this marks a new level of what we can achieve.”