A Trendsetter in Oncology Drug Field Draws Inspiration From Patients

Published: Wednesday, Aug 05, 2015
Howard A. “Skip” Burris III, MD

Howard A. “Skip” Burris III, MD

"Participation in a clinical trial is the first step in fighting cancer, not the last.”

This statement holds special meaning for Howard A. “Skip” Burris III, MD, who advances cancer therapies for patients through one of the largest drug development programs in the industry. With his more than 20 years of experience in the field of early- phase clinical research, Burris has seen first-hand how novel therapies can make a difference in the fight against cancer.

Burris has ensured that this message is embedded into the clinical culture that he leads at Sarah Cannon, in Nashville, Tennessee, a cancer enterprise that pairs clinical research alongside comprehensive treatment from diagnosis through survivorship. In fact, the statement is featured prominently on Sarah Cannon websites.

“We help thousands of patients—and I get great personal satisfaction in seeing even one person benefit from a clinical trial,” said Burris, who serves in multiple roles at Sarah Cannon. As the president of clinical operations for the care service line of his organization, and the chief medical officer and executive director for its drug development arm, Sarah Cannon Research Institute (SCRI), Burris has the advantage of seeing how the delivery of new treatments has elevated the standard of care for his patients.

“Back in the early 1980s there were not many therapy options for those facing cancer,” said Burris. “It was the beginning of modern chemotherapy with drugs like Taxol and Taxotere, which were starting to shrink tumors in a targeted way, but over the last 30 years, that definition of targeted has really changed in a big way.”

Choosing a Path

Burris was just starting out his medical career at this pivotal period of time for cancer therapies. A graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, he originally had set his sights on becoming an engineer, excelling in chemical engineering and math. Yet all roads in his life kept pointing him in the direction of medicine. “At West Point, you are assigned a family sponsor, and mine just happened to be a physician,” explained Burris. “I wanted to help make a difference with the path I chose post college, and seeing the impact that my sponsor made by helping patients was what really led me to reconsider my earlier ambitions.”

Given such influences, Burris enrolled in medical school at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, but he does admit his lack of premedicine courses in college left him somewhat unprepared for medical school. Determined to make up for it, Burris tried to learn all he could.

“I did the book work. I stayed late when we began to take care of patients. I tried to be the person to open or close on surgeries, to be in the emergency room, and it helped me gain the experience about what to do later in life as a doctor,” he said. Burris then pursued an internship and residency at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

Though Burris was initially attracted to surgery, the experiences he had through his clinical studies and rotations helped form his deeper focus in the field of oncology. “In one of my rotations, I worked with a dedicated group of oncologists who really opened my eyes to how unique the specialty was,” said Burris. “I witnessed something I had not expected—the patients were caring for the doctor just as much as the doctor was caring for them.”

The patients also inspired him with their gratitude. “Cancer patients are those you really feel like you are partnering with, and taking the journey with,” he said. And after caring for those patients, Burris chose to continue at Brooke Army Medical Center with a fellowship in hematology and medical oncology.

Burris eventually held positions as the director of clinical research for drug development of the Cancer Therapy and Research Center and the Institute for Drug Development, both in San Antonio, Texas, from 1993 through 1996. He established the first community-based phase I drug development program in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1997, which eventually would become the SCRI.

Making an Impact

In his earlier research positions, Burris was surrounded by forward-thinking clinicians during one of the most critical turning points in the development of cancer treatments. His mentor at the Institute for Drug Development,Daniel D. Von Hoff, MD, FACP, who demonstrated just how impactful clinical research can be for cancer, was one of the pioneers of phase I research, and has been credited with initiating many of the novel targeted cancer studies in the United States.

“He helped me to see the value of seeking newer and more effective drugs, and working with a special set of patients who were interested in participating in clinical trials,” noted Burris.

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