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

Cheryl Alkon
Published: Wednesday, Dec 27, 2017
MaryAnna set the pattern: One of Von Hoff’s earliest memories is sitting on her lap, listening to her read Aesop’s fables each day. In his mid-90s, Stanley was still cutting his neighbor’s lawn and growing vegetables. Just as his father had apprentices, so, too, did Von Hoff, who has taught what he knows to those who came up after him. 

Sharing Knowledge on a Larger Scale

Von Hoff shows immense gratitude for the many people he has learned from, as well as the many he’s had the opportunity to mentor. His curriculum vitae spans 200 pages, including committees, societies, and honors, as well as the postdoctoral candidates he has mentored. 

His biggest accomplishment, he said, has been the establishment of the AACR-ASCO Methods in Clinical Cancer Research course, a collaboration between the 2 societies. The workshop, which takes place in Vail, Colorado, is a weeklong bootcamp that’s become a way for Von Hoff to give back to the lifelong mentoring he has considered an integral part of his career. The website describes the course as “an intensive workshop in the essentials of effective clinical trial designs of therapeutic interventions in the treatment of cancer for clinical fellow and junior faculty clinical researchers in all oncology subspecialties, including radiation, surgical oncology, and medical oncology.”

Von Hoff established the course along with Charles A. Coltman Jr, MD, then president of ASCO, and Gary M. Clark, PhD, a biostatistician then based in San Antonio, more than 2 decades ago. “The whole idea was to give that mentoring in a concentrated, isolated place,” said Von Hoff. “People still ask for advice from each other, even after 21 years. It’s lifelong mentoring.”

The rest of the year, Von Hoff spends about a third of his time working on new cancer agents, a third of his time working with patients, and the last third working on clinical trial efforts to test new oncology drugs. TGen serves as the science base where his laboratory is located; his teams at the HonorHealth healthcare system and US Oncology Research focus on new agents in phase I early clinical trials. Such work on new oncology medications, he said, has helped “make a little dent to increase survival. They’ve been small advances against a very tough disease.”

Working on the Railroad

Von Hoff’s earliest occupational aspirations were working on the railroad in the late 1960s in his high school job. “I was a gandy dancer, which was the name for someone who put in rail and laid track,” he said. “I put in track for the [central Wisconsin] Green Bay and Western Railroads, and I loved it.” Working like both his grandfathers did on the railroad, Von Hoff said he learned from men who had worked in the field for 40 years before him. “I learned a lot from these men. They were good teachers,” he said.

Today, Von Hoff is a model train enthusiast and says he’d either run a model train shop or work as a train engineer if he couldn’t be a physician. Beyond the oncology world, he keeps things on track by maintaining close connections with his family. He and his wife, Ann, have been married for 44 years and live in the Scottsdale, Arizona area. “My wife tolerates the trains,” he said. “Her hobby has always been children and grandchildren and finding clothes for the babies.” Together, Von Hoff and Ann have 3 children and 8 grandchildren, aged 2 to 13 years. When the family comes to visit, they can watch their grandfather’s model railroads (“I build structures, work on the track, and clean the cars,” he said), but they can’t touch them too much. “I provide other trains for them to play with and break a little bit,” he said. “I’m not crazy.”

Facing Cancer in the Future

Von Hoff believes the answer to fully curing pancreatic and other cancers is out there—it just needs to be identified. Thyroid cancer progresses from the thyroid to the neck’s lymph nodes and then the bone, he said. With pancreatic cancer, though, it always progresses to the liver. 

“It’s a new concept,” he said. “Pancreatic cancer is to a tissue regeneration program like a wound that doesn’t heal. The repair gets out of hand. It is a program that has been ‘hacked’ into that controls the whole environment of the tumor. We should be able to find where that program error occurred. We think there’s a vulnerability that we are trying to find. It’s complicated, but there has to be a key that turns it to be normal and shuts the tumor down.” 

Identifying that vulnerability may lie in the greater use of imaging, which could help pave the way to diagnosing cancers more quickly and treating them earlier, he said. “We need a mammogram for pancreatic cancer,” he said. Such imaging can help physicians better understand the microenvironment so there can be more of an emphasis on cancer interception and, eventually, its eradication. “We want to cure the damn disease,” he said.

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