New Georgia Cancer Center leader discusses cutting-edge research and treatment


We always assure you that we’ll bring in the latest breaking news and the people who make that news here on The Means Report and today we certainly live up to that assurance. This gentleman has been on the job as of the taping of this Means Report for all of three days, he is Dr. Jorge Cortes, the brand-new director of the Georgia Cancer Center at Augusta University. We’re going to talk to him about his new role as director, look at the future of cancer research, what the future holds right here at home, and the lifesaving research that has been and continues to be underway at the Georgia Cancer Center, a real gem for our area.

Brad Means: We’re so grateful Dr. Cortes that you said yes when they offered you the job and we welcome you to Augusta, glad you’re here.

Dr. Jorge Cortes: Thank you very much, thank you for having me, and it’s very exciting to be here in Augusta and at the Georgia Cancer Center. I think you said it right, this is a gem, this is a great place to do cancer research and cancer treatments.

Brad Means: Alright so we’re a gem, and your old employer, MD Anderson in Houston, is the gold standard. Can we get there? Can we be spoken of in the same breath as in MD Anderson one day?

Dr. Jorge Cortes: I think we can. I think we can in the sense that we can develop excellent cancer care for patients, that we can bring the latest in clinical research, that we can do outstanding research in the laboratory to develop our understanding of the biology of the disease. We can do it that way, MD Anderson is a huge institution, it’s very large. We don’t need to be that big, but we can develop the quality of the research, the patient care, all of that, I think we can do it very well.

Brad Means: You know I think it bears mentioning right here at the beginning of the broadcast that a lot of the research that’s being relied upon in cancer care today, some of the medicines that are being treated are because of your efforts. You got that out there and you’re helping patients through that medication and through that research and for that we thank you. When somebody goes to the Georgia Cancer Center, what can they expect? Is it mostly to be treated for the disease, to improve their quality of life or can they have hope that you’re going to make it go away? Or both?

Dr. Jorge Cortes: I think both, our goal is to help it go away. We know that today it’s not always possible for every cancer, for every cancer patient, but we certainly can help them in their fight against cancer. With the aim to get rid of the cancer and to, if that is not possible, again in some cancers that’s not possible, at least to help the patient in that process, to help them with their symptoms, with their goals, to go through these processes. I think you always have to have hope that that can happen, we have to be honest with the patients on what that realistic goal is, but we can do it in many, many instances.

Brad Means: Are we closer to curing cancer or at least certain types of it, than when you first started your career? Have we made significant advances?

Dr. Jorge Cortes: Definitely, I think we have made great advances. One is because we understand the biology, how cancer works better, and how it affects the body better, so that has given us better tools to develop better therapies, and we have developed a better ability to translate that understanding of what’s happening, really dip into the cancer biology, into better treatments for patients. Where, for example, nowadays we rely less and less on chemotherapy, we still use it but much less, and we’re doing more of these very specific therapies and affecting the immune system and all these things that are giving us a more comprehensive approach to treat the cancer that we didn’t have just a few years ago.

Brad Means: And so when you treat it though, you’re improving the quality of life, you’re helping people live longer, and how have the patients responded to that? Because I would think that if you get, God forbid, a cancer diagnosis, that your first thought is, okay they’re just going to cure me, they’re going to make me well as if I had the flu. And then when you say, you know what, we can’t make it go away, but because of the research that you referenced, we can make you a happier, healthier person longer. What’s their response when you tell them that?

Dr. Jorge Cortes: Well, I think we need to first be realistic and help the patient understand what exactly we can aim for, and then the patients, I think if you can show them that you’re with them, that you’re going to help them achieve that goal, whatever that realistic goal is, and that you have tools to help them maybe even have a better chance, for example for clinical trials. You say, well, you know this is what we know today, maybe clinical trials gave us hope at least that we can do better, better in controlling the symptoms, better in eradicating the tumor, better in whatever that cancer is, I think patients appreciate that, I think they appreciate the openness, that you can tell them exactly what you know about the cancer and what you don’t know about the cancer, and what the options and the real expectations with the options that you can offer them.

Brad Means: What’s your job going to look like day to day? Are you peeking your head in the lab to make sure that the latest cutting edge research is going on? Are you peeking your head in the patient’s room to make sure that their exam is going okay? How do you kind of manage both of those worlds?

Dr. Jorge Cortes: I do want to be very involved with the day to day operations, I am going to have still a little bit of a clinic myself because I do want to see how it works and make sure that we are providing that excellent care, and because I enjoy seeing my patients. Many of my patients actually followed me all the way here.

Brad Means: Are they really mostly leukemia patients?

Dr. Jorge Cortes: Mostly leukemia patients, exactly. And I am going to have some of my clinical trials that I am bringing with me so that we can offer those options for patients and again, patients with leukemia, but I also want to be very close to our colleagues that work in the laboratory to understand what they’re doing, so that we can connect the researchers that are helping us understand the cancer with the clinical doctors that are helping us fight the cancer and see how we connect, develop new clinical trials, help understand the classification of the tumors, what type of tumors they are, what we need to do about them.

Brad Means: You know when you say clinical trials a lot of people’s ears perk up because those are difficult to get to, it takes a lot of time to get to that stage. It’s one thing to look at something under a microscope, it’s another to say hey come on in and volunteer and test out this new treatment. What kind of trials are you bringing with you? What kind might be available to cancer patients here, especially as you mention those battling leukemia?

Dr. Jorge Cortes: Well I, through my career, what I’ve done is try to go from the very early development of new drugs that offer some hope because they have shown that they have the potential to affect the cancer in a new way, through different mechanisms. So, I’m bringing some trials that are very early drugs that are just being started, all the way to some trials that are, drugs that are somehow already established and they’re just in the final stages of proving that they’re better than what we have now, so I’m going to have a bit of a portfolio. I’m more interested in these new therapies, these drugs for example that we call targeted therapies that are specifically going against the molecular abnormality. Immune therapies, we know a lot more about the immune system and we’re trying to use that more to help fight the cancer. Those kind of therapies are the ones that I want to bring, and although me personally, I work in leukemia, I want to bring them for other tumors and expand their spectrum to other tumors as well.

Brad Means: You’ve seen success in lab animals with those targeted approaches?

Dr. Jorge Cortes: Absolutely, many of them have given us some results that are outstanding and very promising, now we know there’s several steps before we can demonstrate that that helps patients, but it’s a very good step.

Brad Means: When we come back, our conversation with Dr. Jorge Cortes continues, he’s the brand new, and I mean brand new, director of the Georgia Cancer Center, kind enough to stop by The Means Report in his very first week on the job. We’ll find out more about what the future holds for him, and for us as we all deal with this disease. When we come back.

Part 2

Brad Means: Welcome back to The Means Report, Dr. Jorge Cortes is our special guest, he’s the director of the Georgia Cancer Center at Augusta University, Dr. Cortes, we were talking about patient care before we went to break and the trials and the availability that might be there for people who want to see what the latest and greatest cancer approaches are. Let’s talk about a recent approach to cancer treatment, it’s medical marijuana, to be used either to manage pain perhaps, or to offset the effects of chemotherapy. Your thoughts on the use of marijuana, cannabis and how it comes into play in your job.

Dr. Jorge Cortes: There are instances where there’s been very good use for this approach and certainly in cancer therapy because of the symptoms and because of the limitations that we sometimes have and to approach them. It can help with the management of, for example nausea. It can help with the management of pain, and although certainly you want to make good use of all the options that you have, it is certainly good to have this as an option. As we were discussing, we can’t always cure the cancer, so giving the patient whatever time they can spend with their family with the best quality of life possible, that’s important. If this is a tool, and it is in many patients, then you have to use it.

Brad Means: One of the things that was said about you when you got the job, and the news release, in fact, from Augusta University was that you’re a good listener, that you want to go out into the communities and hear from the patients themselves. What’s that going to look like? Will we see you traveling around the area and going into doctor’s offices or MCG-owned facilities? How’s that work when you want to go out and listen?

Dr. Jorge Cortes: Yeah I do want to go out and yes that’s my plan, I do want to go out to the different communities that we serve to talk to the doctors that are treating the patients there, to talk to the patients themselves. I’ve had a lot of experience developing patient education programs related to cancer and things like that, and I think that’s important. We do not always transmit our understanding of the cancer to patients in the right way, either because we’re rushed in the clinic, or because we use these big words that we doctors like and then the patient doesn’t really understand it well, and sometimes it’s difficult for them even to ask questions because again of the rush. So I do want to be out there and understand their needs and see if we can even bring the therapies and the knowledge and all of that to the community, so, you know, I was describing this as taking the center, the cancer center, out to the periphery, you know, we want to go out, not having to have the patients necessarily always come in. There are going to be things that we can only do at the main campus, but there are things that we can do out there.

Brad Means: You know, MCG, Augusta University, the Georgia Cancer Center recently, it was announced, is going to get 6 million dollars in grant money to help do some of the things that you were just describing, going to these underserved areas and help cancer patients, an effort that’s been underway for years at the Georgia Cancer Center anyway. Now you get to continue it, how important is that to you to know that that funding is going to be there and that those folks who are outside of the Augusta city limits are not going to be ignored?

Dr. Jorge Cortes: I think this is an outstanding effort that deserves a lot of credit and I can emphasize it very strongly because I have nothing to do with it. That was there, but it’s a great effort. And this is a renewal, and the reason I mention that is because it shows how successful it has been as a program for the Georgia Cancer Center. Through that effort, for example, the enrollment of minorities in clinical trials is 49% of patients, the national standard is 5%.

Brad Means: Wow.

Dr. Jorge Cortes: So we can do 49% of our patients in clinical trials are minorities. They don’t get those opportunities, so this is the kind of things that because of the population we serve, because of the communities we serve, we need to emphasize so that everybody has the opportunity to get the best patient care. The access to clinical trials, all these things that we can develop and deliver at the cancer center.

Brad Means: You know, I hear the word access and it makes me think about affordability. If somebody is watching right now and they think, look I don’t have the greatest insurance in the world, I don’t have any insurance, but I want some of what Dr. Cortes is talking about, do grants like that help people get that access even if they can’t afford it?

Dr. Jorge Cortes: They help in some way, and not always can help everything, they cannot do everything, many times they provide at least the medications without cost, different trials and different grants work different, but at least getting access to the medications, the medications themselves can be very expensive, so that can be helpful and then we are working with other ways to try to provide some assistance to the patient. For example, November 9, we’re going to have this Unite in the Fight Against Cancer walk, a walk that we organize with the community, the doctors. It’s a one and a half mile walk, and to bring funds to help precisely deliver that care, to help those patients who don’t have the access, they cannot afford their stay here or different elements of their care, all of that goes back to serve those communities. So through the grants and through other efforts, we are trying to reach out to these communities to give them that opportunity to get the best treatment possible.

Brad Means: Can you do anything at the Georgia Cancer Center to make cancer care more affordable? Y’all are big, Augusta University is a force in this state, you have purchasing power, can you make the care cheaper?

Dr. Jorge Cortes: I think us by ourselves probably cannot do that alone, but we can be a strong voice to that with our representatives, with our government, and this goes beyond just local government, it has to do with many other entities and we can and we will be a strong voice for this. I just very recently published a manuscript where we did some research on what is the best way to manage patients with the newest drug or use one of the older drugs, relatively new, but it’s already a past generation, but provides good access, and we did a mathematical model to see what works best, and this is the kind of things that you at least put out there for everybody who’s at stake with these, whether it’s the drug companies, the government officials, the pharmacies, everybody has a stake and we all have responsibilities, it’s nobody’s fault, but if we all work together, I think that will become more of our reality. So we will continue being a force in terms of working on finding ways to make it more affordable.

Brad Means: Did you find that sometimes some of the older medicines, some of the more affordable approaches were the better way to go versus some of the newer, more expensive stuff?

Dr. Jorge Cortes: We do, now of course it has to be a scenario where the difference in the efficacy of the drug is not so big that you lose too much by going to the older drug that’s now, for example, generic. But if the difference is small enough and you can still move to the newer drug if things are not going the right way without compromising much of the real possibilities for the patient, then that’s doable. Now that happens in some cancers and not in others, but hey, in the ones you can do that, well let’s do that.

Brad Means: Are a lot of medical students specializing in oncology? Do you need more?

Dr. Jorge Cortes: There are a lot, but we do need more. It’s a demanding specialty and sometimes that becomes a little intimidating for the medical students, but I think this is the greatest time if you’re interested in this field, to be in this field as an investigator, as a scientist, as a physician, because of how quickly it is evolving and because we still have a long way to go, but we are really heading to that opportunity to cure cancer. I am convinced that before I finish my career, the percentage of patients that are being cured of cancer will greatly increase, it’s already much better than when I started, but it’s going exponentially.

Brad Means: You believe that?

Dr. Jorge Cortes: I do, I am convinced of that.

Brad Means: How do you get doctors and scientists to come here? What’s the selling point, and again, I know it’s day three for you, and I don’t want to put you in the hot seat really, but what are some things you might say to somebody so they might make the same choice you did and come here?

Dr. Jorge Cortes: Well, I think we, first of all we need to let people know that we already are doing very good work, or my colleagues are doing very good work, again this is nothing that I’ve done, they already were doing it. There is a lot of support from the medical college, from Augusta University, from the state, you know, there is a lot of support. I love the involvement of the community, how supportive the community, how much they take the cancer center as their own, how much they want it to succeed and all of that. And we have, you know, for researchers, we have a brand new building with plenty of open laboratory space, so we have a lot of areas of opportunity that for somebody who wants to do something different, for example, reaching out to communities and get more minorities into clinical trials, it’s all here.

Brad Means: Why did you decide to get into this field, you talked about the need for more med students to choose cancer research and care, oncology. What lit that spark in you back in the day?

Dr. Jorge Cortes: I think that I was very fortunate to have outstanding mentors. When I started going into this, I found good mentors that showed me what they could do, research, they were excellent researchers, my colleagues and my friends, and, you know, they put that fire on me and I think we have outstanding mentors at the Georgia Cancer Center both in the laboratory and in the clinic that can help that young hungry student, resident, fellow, or even young faculty, to realize their potential and to then give back to the cancer center and to the community, all of that fire and that enthusiasm.

Brad Means: You still go home at night satisfied that you made the right career choice, excited that you’re still doing great things?

Dr. Jorge Cortes: Absolutely and I use it as an example with my children, I tell them whatever they’re in the process of selecting what they’re going to do, I said, you know, just remember, you’re going to wake up every day to do whatever you choose. I was very lucky, I found what my passion is, I get up excited every day to go to work. There are days that you have problems, whatever, but if you’re excited, you’ll go through them. I’m very fortunate that, yes, I am excited every day to go to work.

Brad Means: Well we’re fortunate to have you here in Augusta and Dr. Cortes congratulations on the new job and welcome.

Dr. Jorge Cortes: Thank you very much, I am very happy to be here and thank you for the opportunity.

Brad Means: Absolutely, hope you’ll come back.

Dr. Jorge Cortes: I will.

Brad Means: Dr. Jorge Cortes, new director of the Georgia Cancer Center, some incredible things going on right here at home.

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The Means Report first aired in January of 2009 offering coverage that you cannot get from a daily newscast. Forget about quick soundbytes -- we deliver an in-depth perspective on the biggest stories. If they are making news on the local or national level, you will find them on the set of The Means Report. Hosted by WJBF NewsChannel 6 anchor, Brad Means, The Means Report covers the topics impacting your life, your town, your state, and your future.