Left to right: Dr. Curiel’s wife, Ruth Berggren, M.D., infectious diseases specialist, also joined the Health Science Center faculty. Dr. Curiel finishes the 2003 Hardrock 100 Mountain Run in Colorado. His son, Alex, greets him at the finish line. His time was 34:44, placing him 13th out of 135 runners. Dr. Curiel in the lab.
But the energetic Dr. Curiel is seldom focused on rest, not when there are races to run and tumors to conquer. He awoke early that Sunday morning to compete in the 2006 San Antonio Marathon, or Marathon of the Americas.® An accomplished long-distance runner, Dr. Curiel has completed many 100-mile races, and he is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records beside the mark for longest time running in place while dribbling a basketball. He set the record while raising funds to study a rare form of cancer.
With that kind of discipline and endurance, it was not surprising last summer when Dr. Curiel decided to accept an exciting and pivotal professional assignment - to strengthen and transform academic oncology in San Antonio. His roles at the Health Science Center, where he is assistant dean, and at the Cancer Therapy & Research Center, where he is director of cancer research, converge in the institutions’ joint San Antonio Cancer Institute (SACI), which he directs. SACI is one of only two National Cancer Institute-designated cancer centers in Texas, and he has said the chance to lead it is a dream job. In his first months in San Antonio, Dr. Curiel already has set ambitious goals for SACI’s rise to the elite of U.S. academic cancer centers.
"SACI is going to lead in research, which is the driver of patient care within an academic oncology center," Dr. Curiel said. "New concepts in the lab are turned into workable preclinical and clinical trials, which prove the concepts and result in new and improved treatments for cancer. Patients in our clinics are the first to benefit from these new discoveries. This is the translational research model that is so prominent on our nation’s research agenda."
Dr. Curiel is an outside-the-box thinker whose ideas about how cancers form and develop are rattling the cages of existing viewpoints on the subject. Researchers previously assumed that cancer depleted the body’s immune system, and they sought to show that replenishing immune-response cells would shrink tumors. But Dr. Curiel has published mouse and human clinical trials revealing that cancer reprograms immune and other cells into "bad actors" that actually worsen the cancer. "Our approach is to ask, ‘What if we take away those bad actors?’" he said.
In late 2004 in the high-impact journal Nature Medicine, Dr. Curiel and his team identified a very specific immune cell that cancer uses to turn off the immune system. It was the first definitive identification of this "off switch" in human cancer. That paper is now among the most cited in the scientific world.
Dr. Curiel is also a compassionate physician, and he helped many seriously ill patients endure one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history, the landfall and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He and his wife, infectious diseases specialist Ruth Berggren, M.D., joined the Health Science Center and CTRC from Tulane University Medical School in New Orleans, and they were hard at work during the tragedy. Dr. Curiel also made national headlines when he successfully rescued cell lines from his flooded Tulane laboratory.
In a November 2006 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Curiel authored an essay about New Orleans hospital decision-making, which was placed under extreme strain during the crisis. He said he wrote the article to sound a clarion call for better disaster preparedness in medical institutions.
Readiness exercises should fortify health care providers who could face life-and-death decisions during unusual and prolonged times of stress, he said. These include when hospital generators are out, medication stockpiles are depleted, equipment or facilities are in limited supply such as during an influenza pandemic, or if health care providers find themselves amidst violence, particularly armed conflict. "I was able to write this article because I was in New Orleans when the hurricane hit," Dr. Curiel said. "I saw firsthand how the infrastructure failures and lack of preparedness to deal with that catastrophic scenario greatly hindered doctors, nurses and the rest of the health care team in the trenches from achieving their ultimate goal of rendering appropriate medical care, including saving lives."
SACI is a new chapter in Dr. Curiel’s career. This physician-researcher-leader-author-marathon runner is truly a man of many talents and sides, and all of his many positive qualities should result in the San Antonio Cancer Institute ascending to a new place among America’s academic oncology centers. Best of all, patients in San Antonio and Texas will be the beneficiaries.
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