Balancing act

Patricia Thompson, PhD
Patricia Thompson, PhD

How do you treat someone who doesn’t have a disease? It’s a question Patricia Thompson, PhD, has spent a lifetime trying to answer.

As the new director of the Cancer Prevention and Control Program at The University of Arizona Cancer Center, Dr. Thompson is at the forefront of an exciting, yet remarkably challenging, field of cancer research.

“It’s a balancing act,” Dr. Thompson said. “We have certain medications and treatments that we know prevent cancer, but some of them have potentially serious side effects. In prevention, we can accept no toxicity, because we’re treating a healthy person who may or may not battle cancer one day, as opposed to treating someone who already has cancer.”

It takes a certain amount of flexibility to excel in such a volatile and unpredictable area of research — something this self-described “small-town girl from West Texas” possesses in spades.

Dr. Thompson completed her undergraduate work at Angelo State University in her hometown of San Angelo, Texas, before moving on to the University of Texas Health Sciences Center in San Antonio, where she earned her PhD in microbiology and immunology.

After she completed her PhD program, Dr. Thompson accepted a position with the National Center for Toxicological Research in Jefferson, Ark., where she trained in a new program for combining molecular biology with epidemiology (the branch of medical science that deals with the incidence, distribution, and control of diseases).

“I felt like taking that information to the patient population would create this wonderful opportunity to cross-train in how we take everything we have learned from the laboratory and apply to humans,” Dr. Thompson said.

Her work there led to an eventual collaboration with the CPC group at The University of Arizona Cancer Center. “I clearly remember standing outside the ‘new’ Arizona Cancer Center building just after they finished construction and looking out toward the mountains and desert skyline,” Dr. Thompson said. “I said to myself, ‘What an absolutely gorgeous place.’”

She completed her training in Arkansas, and she accepted a faculty position at the University of Texas, MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston in 1999.
At the time, she never thought she’d end up in Tucson — she was a Texan, after all. But she maintained her collaborative relationship with UACC, and when a position in the CPC group opened up in 2001, she jumped at the opportunity.

She was thrilled to join what she called one of the nation’s largest and most productive cancer-prevention programs. Dr. Thompson developed into one of the Cancer Center’s key contributors in its expansive prevention clinical trials program and leads a major effort to identify modifiable risk factors for cancer.

Dr. Thompson took over as the CPC director in November 2011 from Elena Martínez, PhD, who recently relocated to the University of San Diego, Calif., and Peter Lance, MD, who is now the UACC Chief Cancer Control Officer.

“I’m truly standing on the shoulders of giants here,” Dr. Thompson said. “The work Dr. David Alberts and then, subsequently Drs. Lance and Martínez and the CPC have done here has really put Tucson on the map in terms of cancer prevention. I’m very lucky because the program has been built by such incredible leadership.”

Dr. Thompson takes over at a crucial time in the field’s progression. She hopes to use this leadership position to highlight the CPC’s successes and keep finding clever, innovative ways to prevent the disease before it can occur.

“We’re in a new era,” Dr. Thompson said. “We have proof of principle that we can prevent some cancers. Now, how do we conduct studies of highly promising agents that can help high-risk people who don’t have disease, but do so in a way where we won’t have to wait 10 to 20 years and spend millions of dollars to find out whether we should pursue it?

“There are always going to be challenges, but there are also new opportunities every day,” she adds. “It’s up to us to promote the message that the real cure for cancer is prevention.”

-Nick Prevenas, Feb. 6, 2012