Internationally Renowned. Intent On Making An Impact In Omaha
“I have a lot of respect for — and gain a lot of inspiration from — the kids.”
Donald Durden, M.D., PH.D
To put it in the vernacular of his favorite pastime, Donald Durden, M.D., Ph.D., is to the cancer field what Babe Ruth was to the baseball field – a true superstar. His September arrival at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center is more than a pivotal recruiting win; it is an unmistakable signal to the broader medical community that Children’s is locked in to its vision of becoming a global leader in children’s health.
“Don Durden is the prototype of what we’re after – someone who is nationally recognized, brings lots of external research funding and is developing new treatments,” says Fernando Ferrer, M.D., senior vice president and surgeon-in-chief.
An internationally renowned pediatric oncologist and researcher, Dr. Durden specializes in the treatment of children with brain tumors and the development of leading-edge therapeutics.
“When I interviewed with the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) chancellor, he said, ‘What do you want to do? I told him, “I want to develop this platform technology to cure half of the diseases on the planet.’ I said, “You probably think that’s crazy.’ He said, ‘No, that doesn’t sound crazy to me.'”
Dr. Durden serves in a number of roles at Children’s and UNMC, including interim division chief of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology, chair of Pediatric Oncology and chief of the inaugural division of Computational Chemistry and Innovative Therapeutics.
“It’s all about informatics. It’s all about digesting large data so you can discover new targets that are causing disease and also develop the ability to sub-stratify diseases into sub-groups,” he says. “All medulloblastomas are not the same, for example. Everyone has a specific genomic imprint of how their specific disease would best be treated. That’s called precision medicine.”
Dr. Durden also serves as the Child Health Research Institute (CHRI)’s lead pediatric cancer investigator, spearheading efforts to develop and apply targeted, personalized drug therapies for pediatric and adult cancer at Children’s, UNMC and beyond.
“We’re in a position now where we will be bringing some of these targeted dual and triple inhibitors into clinical trials through funding that we’ve been able to obtain,” Dr. Durden says. “Two clinical trials that don’t exist anywhere else will be open here in a couple of months.”
His research brings more than $9 million in grant support from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) – the gold standard – to the CHRI, doubling its funding.
“Dr. Durden’s scientific breakthroughs have led to safer, more effective cancer treatments for children,” says Richard G. Azizkhan, M.D., Children’s president & CEO. “His work is nothing short of life-changing – and game-changing in terms of how we target and inhibit cancer cells. He is a true pioneer in the field of pediatric cancer research, and we could not be more excited to have him in Omaha benefiting the children and families we serve.”
Prior to joining the teams at Children’s and UNMC, Durden was vice chair of Research and professor of Pediatrics at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine. At the Moores UCSD Cancer Center, he served as associate director for Pediatric Oncology and co-director of its Cancer Genetics clinic. Dr. Durden received his M.D. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Miami School of Medicine. He completed his Pediatrics residency and pediatric Hematology/Oncology fellowship at Seattle Children’s Hospital and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center.
Dr. Durden moved to Omaha in September with his wife, Deanna Jensen-Durden, a pediatric nurse. He says he is intrigued by what Children’s can be: “Our CEO wants to transform Children’s into a world-class institution.”
One of Dr, Durden’s primary areas of focus, right now, is the recruitment of physician-scientists: “My modus operandi is to bring them in, show them the depth of the university and show them what we’re doing and what can be done. I think I can convince them that if they come and join this group they will get an RO1 (NIH research project grant) within the first year, which is the most difficult thing for them to do… My division would be the oasis to allow people to do something very quickly.”
In addition to his research work and leadership responsibilities, Dr. Durden spends about 20 percent of his time caring directly for patients with brain tumors.
“It’s a busy service,” he says. “I didn’t train to do this and then not do it. I have a lot of respect for – and gain a lot of inspiration from – the kids.”
An avid baseball fan – and player – Dr. Durden says he loves spending time outdoors. But what he enjoys most is his work.
“I enjoy going in over the weekend to write a grant or meet with my team. It’s all about taking these pods of information that exist and connecting them so they generate a new hypothesis. It’s like a puzzle, but it has human impact. I’m helping to solve a problem that really has a level of importance for people who are suffering. I feel lucky to be able to do this,” he says. “I feel lucky to be here.”