Recently, Mayor Sylvester Turner recognized the contributions of Ronald A. DePinho, M.D. to our community and the world at a City Hall ceremony. I have since learned more about the person and leader that inspired the Mayor’s Proclamation.
Ron is an internationally renowned physician-scientist whose name is often associated with significant scientific discoveries in the field of cancer and aging. He is often described around the world as a scientist, innovator, healthcare leader, entrepreneur, patient advocate, and a collaborator all rolled up into one person. The significance and breadth of his research contributions and the impact of his leadership are notable.
Most recently, Ron served with distinction as MD Anderson Cancer Center’s fourth president from 2011-2017. A change-agent, he was recruited to this top post for his innovative skills and entrepreneurial thinking with the goals of elevating the quality of research and care.
At the nation’s top-ranked hospital for cancer care (MD Anderson), Ron conceived and launched a highly ambitious Cancer Moon Shots Program designed to more rapidly convert knowledge into dramatic reductions in cancer suffering and death. This multi-billion dollar initiative has yielded many practice-changing advances in a number of cancers and inspired the national moon shots program launched by former Vice President Biden. During his six-year tenure, Ron also dramatically expanded and improved basic research and training programs, recruited many world class faculty including cancer immunologist Jim Allison, modernized MD Ander- son’s digital research and patient care infrastructure, secured record philanthropy of more than $1.2B and clinical revenue of $3B over a 5 year period, and expanded MD Anderson’s global network to 34 institutions in 24 countries which collectively reach one-third of the global population.
Today he is in a new place with a freedom to propagate his ideas as a world leader in trying to cure cancer, extend lives and reduce suffering of people as they age. He believes in education and prevention as a healthy aging tool. He believes that up to 50% of cancers are preventable by lifestyle changes.
Ron’s sense of urgency continues today as a faculty member in the Department of Cell Biology at MD Anderson where he leads a 20 person research lab pushing the frontiers of science, helping indigent and VIP patients alike. Ron has returned to his entrepreneurial roots launching a new biotech company developing critical drugs for patients in need. He is helping to build a global collaboration framework to better coordinate efforts across the many diverse stakeholders in the cancer community (funders, patient advocacy groups, academia, biopharma, policy, and government) to accelerate progress in the prevention and treatment of cancer in many countries. In this month alone, he visited with leaders in Beijing, London and the Vatican. Today he is in a new place with a freedom to propagate his ideas as a world leader in trying to cure cancer, extend lives and reduce suffering of people as they age.
Born into a family of poor immigrants from Portugal, Ron was the third of the five children of Alvaro and Celeste DePinho who, in 1939, settled into the Bronx, New York. The family’s first home in America was located near the gates of the Fordham University campus. When Ron graduated summa cum laude and Salutatorian from Fordham in 1977, with a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences, he fulfilled his father’s dream for his children to have a better life through hard work and higher education. Taking his father’s dream one step further, Ron received his medical degree with distinction in microbiology and immunology in 1981 from Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where he later received its distinguished alumnus award.
With an early curiosity to understand the “why” of disease, Ron did an internship and residency in internal medicine at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. He then devoted the next stage of his career to learning science and working in the laboratory at Albert Einstein. He would later take this knowledge and insight to Dana Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard and apply what he learned to medicine on a global scale.
His journey became personal when his father was fighting cancer—as he told Jim Dwyer, writer for The New York Times, “I had just gotten recognition for all these fancy schmancy papers, and I couldn’t do anything for this person I loved. I vowed that it wasn’t just about doing science. It was about making sure that those scientific discoveries drove to things that would actually help patients.” Driven by the loss of his father to colon cancer, Ron is determined to end stories of lost loved ones for other families – particularly the underserved.
For those who know him well, he is described as an eternal optimist and a passionate, visionary thinker. His efforts to impact the cancer problem have ranged from conducting breakthrough research, educating the next generation of physicians and scientists including the current NCI Director, promoting public health through advocacy and policy, founding new bio- pharmaceutical companies, and catalyzing cross-sector collaborative programs such as the MD Anderson Cancer Moon Shots Program and its Global Program.
In his spare time, Ron studies martial arts and has risen to the rank of 6th degree black belt becoming a national champion in the 1970s. He resides in River Oaks with his wife and three children.