Conquer Cancer Foundation Board Member Tom Roberts Cites Need to Grow Research Capacity as Opportunity for Discovery Accelerates

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3.8.47_roberts.jpgThomas G. Roberts, MD, dedicates a shelf in his home to memories of patients—photographs, notes, expressions of gratitude, traces of lives linked with his through cancer treatment. He looks at it every day, he says, and the memories inform his mission.

“In oncology, you become part of people’s lives, and they become part of yours,” he says. “I’m a different person for those interactions, and I’m privileged to have experienced them. I think that, on some level, many physicians feel that our work is a way of honoring our patients … those who are still with us, and those who are not.”

Advancing Cancer Care from Outside the Clinic

These days, Dr. Roberts’ shelf is located in San Francisco, where he works as a Managing Member of Farallon Capital Management, LLC. He joined the firm as a portfolio manager in 2005, having previously served as an attending oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, an instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and a visiting scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A graduate of Harvard Medical School, Dr. Roberts trained in internal medicine at MGH and in oncology through the Dana Farber/Partners Cancer Care Oncology Fellowship Program.

3.8.47_quote-roberts.jpgAs an oncologist, Dr. Roberts knew how important drug development and translational research were to his patients’ treatment and survival—and experienced the familiar frustration of progress never coming fast enough. He began to act on a long-standing interest in public policy first honed at the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned dual undergraduate degrees in biology and economics.

“I became increasingly interested in looking for ways to make drug development more efficient and allocate capital more efficiently,” he says. “I started to publish and consult, and eventually made the transition.”

Although Dr. Roberts left day-to-day clinical practice, he has never left oncology.

A lecturer at Stanford’s and Berkeley’s business schools, Dr. Roberts also continues to serve on the Leadership Council of the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center as well as the board of the Cancer Education Consortium. He is a section editor of The Oncologist.

Dr. Roberts is also an active board member and philanthropic supporter of the Conquer Cancer Foundation of ASCO.

Cancer Research at the Tipping Point

As the father of two young daughters, with a full professional plate, Dr. Roberts doesn’t take board service lightly. He chose to invest time and resources in the Conquer Cancer Foundation, he says, because of the organization’s alignment with his own mission and interests—and because of the Foundation’s unique capacity to drive cancer care forward at what appears to be a critical inflection point in understanding, preventing, and treating the disease.

“With such limited time, I wouldn’t make this level of commitment—including weekends away from my little girls—if the Foundation’s mission was not compelling,” Dr. Roberts says. “I always look to get involved in efforts that are led by teams I respect and admire, that are dynamic and going through change, and that are challenging and require multidisciplinary approaches to complex problems. The Conquer Cancer Foundation meets all of those criteria.”

Dr. Roberts believes that the Conquer Cancer Foundation’s support of translational research, including the work of junior faculty, is essential to sustain momentum at a time when opportunities for development of new therapies are proliferating rapidly.

“Throughout history, we’ve seen that scientific discovery doesn’t happen linearly and it doesn’t happen quickly, but that we occasionally find ourselves at tipping points where things really start to happen,” Dr. Roberts says. “This is one of those tipping points. The ability to harvest rapidly evolving opportunities is dependent on the people you have in place and the resources you have available. You see losers, winners, lost opportunities, and great triumphs. We’re in that moment now with cancer research. If we lose momentum now, we’ve lost a lot.”

“Fully exploiting the opportunities available to us now in translational research involves funding infrastructure … including support of interdisciplinary, creative work that doesn’t tend to get a lot of funding,” he continues. “For instance, the junior faculty in whom we invest today, through the Conquer Cancer Foundation’s Young Investigator Awards, will learn and be inspired and actually be the generation that influences cancer care for the next 50 years. Whatever I can do to help build the mechanism to support that work … I’ll do it.”

Diversity of Talent Will Create a World Free from the Fear of Cancer

For Dr. Roberts, it’s clear that the work of the Conquer Cancer Foundation will benefit from the diversity of talent and perspective that enriches his own work at the nexus of medicine, policy, and finance—and that the Foundation’s vision of a world free from the fear of cancer will be achieved only through the contributions of many.

“To the extent that I can be a catalyst to attract collaborators who are interested in venture philanthropy, finance, and other fields … people who can complement our core strengths in medicine … I welcome that role,” says Dr. Roberts. “We embrace the knowledge that often the greatest innovations come from the intersection of different fields. While it’s essential that we all contribute financially to the Foundation … working together to grow its capacity for investment in research and other initiatives that will improve care … we also welcome valuable contributions of expertise and other tools that will help us move the work forward.”

To learn more about the Conquer Cancer Foundation of ASCO, please visit ■

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