Von Hoff's Quest Is for a Cure in Pancreatic Cancer

Cheryl Alkon
Published: Wednesday, Dec 27, 2017
Daniel D. Von Hoff, MD
Daniel D. Von Hoff, MD
It was the unfamiliar, umbrella-shaped leaf of the gingko biloba tree that taught Daniel D. Von Hoff, MD, a lesson—one that would help shape the course of his career as a top pancreatic cancer researcher. As a biology undergraduate at what was then Carroll College, Von Hoff studied with Professor Roy Christoph, who led the class outside to study vein patterns and other qualities of the trees dotting the Waukesha, Wisconsin, campus. “He demanded excellence, and he taught observation,” said Von Hoff, now 70 years old and physician in chief at Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) in Phoenix, Arizona. 

When it came time to show what he learned about the material, Von Hoff found a gingko leaf on his test that hadn’t been introduced during the semester.  Afterward, Von Hoff asked Christoph, whom he later called one of his greatest mentors, about the wild-card question.

“What you have to learn is the method, not just observation,” Christoph told Von Hoff. With its specific vein pattern, the professor had wanted his students to use their information and apply it accordingly. “It’s important to turn that knowledge into other situations you’re not familiar with,” Von Hoff said. It’s a concept that has served him well at TGen and throughout his career as a cancer researcher, physician, and mentor.

Von Hoff has been instrumental in the development of 3 clinical regimens for drugs that have improved survival for patients with advanced pancreatic cancers: gemcitabine, nab-paclitaxel (Abraxane), and irinotecan liposome injection (Onivyde). He and his colleagues have also helped to bring other cancer drugs to patients such as mitoxantrone, fludarabine, docetaxel, irinotecan, nelarabine, capecitabine, lapatinib, vismodegib, and others.  

Von Hoff is focused on developing more targeted therapies for those with pancreatic and other advanced cancers. In October, Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) awarded a $2.5 million grant to a TGen team headed by Von Hoff to develop a pancreatic cancer clinical trial that will test the novel combination of pembrolizumab (Keytruda), an anti-PD-1 immunotherapy, and paricalcitol, a vitamin D receptor agonist. He also was part of SU2C Dream Team grant winners in 2009 and 2015.

In addition to his role at TGen, Von Hoff is a professor of medicine at Mayo Clinic, the Virginia G. Piper Distinguished Chair for Innovative Cancer Research and chief scientific officer for HonorHealth’s Clinical Research Institute, medical director of research at McKesson Specialty Health, and scientific medical officer at US Oncology Research.

He is widely published, with more than 650 papers, 140 book chapters, and 1080 abstracts. He also has won the 2010 David A. Karnofsky Memorial Award from the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) for his contributions to the field, is a past president of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), and is a past member of a presidential National Cancer Advisory Board from 2004 to 2010, among other accolades.

Taking the Closer Look

Throughout his career, the powers of observation have helped guide Von Hoff. Although he initially planned to focus on infectious disease, his first rotation as an intern in medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, was oncology—and it took him in a new direction.

“I really liked it because I was glad to be taking care of people who were really sick,” he said. “On that unit, I had great teachers and nurses who were so supportive—they were so glad to try to help and take care of people, not just take care of the rotation.” Working with patients with cancer in the early 1970s also helped him hone his guiding philosophy: To cure sometimes, to relieve often, and to comfort always.

“There is always something you can do to help someone,” he said. “Even just sitting there and telling the person what is known. Your responsibility is just to listen to that person because they will tell you what is wrong and what they need. If you do that, you will be helpful. It’s all in there; just tune out everything else. You learn from books, but you also learn at the bedside.”

Learning from esteemed experts has been another hallmark of Von Hoff’s career, and his appreciation for doing so began early on, at home. As the oldest of 5 children, Von Hoff was raised in Oshkosh and De Pere, Wisconsin, by his father Stanley, a bricklayer, and his mother, MaryAnna, a nurse’s aide and accountant. “My greatest mentors were my mother and father; they taught me all about hard work, energy, and curiosity,” he said.

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