Oncologist Ushers in New Era in Cancer Treatment

Faculty Spotlight - George Sledge, Jr., MD

Dr. George Sledge

There are a group of patients George Sledge, Jr., MD, will never forget. Many of them have been dead for decades, yet they continue to inspire the work he does today. It’s a rare oncologist, he says, who doesn’t remember his patient’s name, because it is such a personal business “where all the grief, anxiety, concern, the fears, the family issues, the psychosocial issues are thrust in your face on a regular basis and become an important part of your life.”

George Sledge went into medicine to help people, and those he wanted to help most, he realized early in his training, were cancer patients.  He has devoted his professional life to understanding the biology of cancer and working to improve treatments specifically for breast cancer.

A former president of the American Society for Clinical Oncology, Sledge was recruited from Indiana University School of Medicine to succeed former Oncology Division Chief Ronald Levy, MD. He received his medical degree at Tulane University, did his residency in internal medicine at St. Louis University and did a fellowship in medical oncology at the University of Texas-San Antonio. He is a noted leader in cancer research, the author of more than 250 scientific publications, and the recipient of numerous awards.

Today Sledge is the head of a Division renowned for having found cures for lymphoma and Hodgkin’s disease. As Chief, he is capitalizing on existing strengths in the Division and building new areas of excellence, recruiting faculty, and expanding the programs in urologic and breast cancers.

Asked about his plans for the Division, Sledge replied: “Stanford is not a place that will compete based on size. Institutions like the Sloan Ketterings of the world will always be ahead of us far as volume. On a similar note, the breast cancer program at MD Anderson has as many breast faculty members as we have in the oncology division at Stanford.

“So trying to compete on size is not something we will ever be great at or should be,” he says. “We need to compete on being more nimble. We need to compete based upon our leverage of on-campus resources in areas such as information technology and genomics. ”We need to make great use of what is in our back yard, which is to say great information in the Silicon Valley area, great biotechnology in the corridor running between San Francisco and here and use those to help generate, create and further a world class institution.”

Personal Approach to Cancer

Today’s oncologists are faced with what Sledge describes as “smart cancers,” those that have undergone mutational changes that make them resistant to most drugs.  Many have spread outside the organ of origin by the time the patient is diagnosed. Being able to intervene early, before a cancer has spread, is where the work needs to happen.

“In the longer term, all of us would like to put medical oncologists out of business by discovering better ways to prevent cancer,” said Sledge. Better ways might include developing immunizations to specific types of cancer. Another way might be to mobilize the immune system to interfere with the development of cancer at its earliest stage.

In the meantime, advances in information technology and genomics are fostering a new approach to cancer.  Strides in the sequencing of thousands of genomes from major tumor types have led to a significant reduction in the cost to sequence a patient’s genome to approximately $1,000. Having genomic data on an individual patient enables oncologists to develop therapies that might turn off the drivers of that patient’s cancer.  Ultimately, Sledge says, this could lead to a sea change in medicine’s approach to cancer: for the first time in human history doctors will be able to treat cancer patients on a true one-to-one basis.