Written By: Jane Erikson
During his 35 years as a cancer clinician and researcher, Andrew S. Kraft, MD, has experienced many memorable moments.
“One that stands out was when I first used Gleevec to treat a gastrointestinal stromal tumor,” he recalled. “The patient had an amazing response.
“This experience in the mid 1990’s taught me that understanding the biology of tumors and then developing targeted therapies can be highly successful. This is why we must continue to push science to find cancer cures.”
Dr. Kraft is now “pushing science” as the Sydney E. Salmon endowed chair and director of the University of Arizona Cancer Center.
“The Arizona Cancer Center has been an NCI-designated comprehensive cancer center since 1990, and has a reputation for outstanding research and clinical care,” Dr. Kraft noted in an interview, prior to starting at the Cancer Center on Sept. 15.
“It also has a large, statewide outreach program, that includes working with Native Americans. The statewide commitment and excellence in research are really the things that attracted me to the Cancer Center.”
Dr. Kraft also will be director of the $100 million UA Cancer Center in downtown Phoenix, scheduled for completion by September 2015. He will appoint a deputy director to serve at the Phoenix center full-time.
“I’m looking forward to building on the work of the outstanding individuals in Tucson,” he said, “and then recruiting people who will enhance the expertise that is already here. One area in particular that I’m looking forward to working in is tumor immunology. There have been a lot of new agents coming out that target the body’s immune system to kill cancer. I’m hoping the center will be able to take some leadership in this area.”
Dr. Kraft comes to the UA from the Hollings Cancer Center at the Medical University of South Carolina, which under his leadership became a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center, and where he oversaw research projects totaling more than $42 million annually.
His own laboratory and clinical research projects have focused largely on prostate cancer and leukemia. “It turns out that some of the enzymes that control both of these diseases are overlapping,” he said.
“In the lab we have been particularly interested in drugs that control the growth signaling of cancer cells,” he said. “We study the enzymes that are regulated by these drugs and how they function within the cancer cells. We then try to develop new technologies that will affect the growth of these cells, particularly by adding combinations of small molecules that can regulate cell growth.”
Dr. Kraft also will serve as associate vice president for oncology programs for the UA Health Sciences Center; professor of medicine in the Department of Medicine’s hematology/oncology section; and senior associate dean for translational research in the College of Medicine.
“I hope the resources we need to do translational research will be available not only for cancer research, but also for research in other areas of the College of Medicine,” he said. “And I’m hoping that once I get my feet on the ground with the Cancer Center, that some of the technologies that we have in use there can be applied throughout the College of Medicine.”
His research agenda also will emphasize “personalized medicine.”
“Until now, the major goal of cancer therapy has been to damage DNA within fast-growing cells or affect the metabolism of those cells. Now the goal is to find specific mutations that allow us to personalize therapy for an individual patient,” he said. “This example in oncology can also be applied to research throughout the College of Medicine.”
Dr. Kraft follows Anne E. Cress, PhD, who served as interim director of the Cancer Center after David S. Alberts, MD, stepped down as director in June 2013. Dr. Alberts continues at the Cancer Center as Regents’ professor and director emeritus.
“The UA Cancer Center patients, staff and faculty will benefit tremendously from Dr. Kraft's leadership,” Dr. Alberts said. “I have great optimism that Dr. Kraft will take our center to another level upward in achievement. I am extremely excited to team with him in prostate cancer prevention and early detection research, especially in our large, underserved populations. He has agreed to serve as an investigator on our Native American cancer prevention NCI-funded partnership, providing unique insight into the molecular mechanisms involved in prostate carcinogenesis.”
Dr. Kraft received his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania and did his residency in internal medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. He then served as a research assistant and then as a clinical staff fellow at the NCI. After 13 years with the University of Alabama – Birmingham, he spent eight years at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, before being recruited to the Medical University of South Carolina in 2004.
He and his wife Katharine, a retired social worker, have three adult children living in the Denver area, near San Francisco and in Minneapolis.
For 40 years, Dr. Kraft has enjoyed spending his free time as a sculptor, creating what he calls anthropomorphic statues, and life-size heads made in clay. He then casts them in various media, such as plaster or cement, or sends them to a foundry to be cast in bronze.
It’s an exciting diversion from his professional pursuits in the lab and the clinic.
“In the United States, one person dies every second of every day from cancer,” he said. “We’ve had a war on cancer in this country for more than 40 years, and we’ve made significant progress. Our research has really made a difference for patients. We have to continue to do that.”