UF names new cancer center director, radiation oncology chair

Paul Okunieff, M.D.

Paul Okunieff, M.D.

Dr. Paul Okunieff has been named director of the University of Florida Shands Cancer Center and chairman of the UF College of Medicine department of radiation oncology, effective Dec. 1.

A graduate of Harvard Medical School, Okunieff is currently the Philip Rubin professor in radiation oncology and chair of the department of radiation oncology at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, where he leads a successful radiation oncology clinical practice and research program. He also is director of the university’s Robert A. Flavin Radiosurgery Center. Prior to his appointment at Rochester in 1998, Okunieff served as branch chief of radiation oncology at the National Cancer Institute, overseeing clinical-translational research for the intramural NCI program.

Okunieff is board-certified in therapeutic radiology and is among the pioneers of in vivo nuclear magnetic resonance imaging of tumors. In addition to his experience in building a large and highly collaborative clinical oncology program, he will bring with him tens of millions of dollars in active federal and other extramural grant funding. Many members of his research team will join him in Gainesville.

Okunieff succeeds Dr. Joseph V. Simone, an internationally recognized leader in cancer care, research and education who headed the Cancer Center and helped to advance an alliance with UF, Shands HealthCare and the Moffitt Cancer Center that was forged in 2008, and Dr. Robert J. Amdur, a professor and interim chair of the department of radiation oncology since 2006.

“Dr. Okunieff is a perfect match for the University of Florida and Shands HealthCare,” said Dr. David S. Guzick, senior vice president for health affairs at UF’s Health Science Center and president of the UF&Shands Health System. “At a time when we are opening a new Cancer Hospital, developing our already world-renowned Proton Beam Therapy Institute in Jacksonville with a plan to add a radiosurgery center at that site, enhancing our research program with a focus on translational and clinical research, and establishing a National Cancer Center consortium arrangement with Moffit Cancer Center, Paul’s extensive background in all of these areas and his extraordinary record of achievement are just what we need in Florida.”

Okunieff’s research includes a novel method to measure radiation-induced DNA fragments in the bloodstream to estimate radiation exposure, and the identification of molecules that provide genetically based protection against radiation hazards. In addition, he has planned and active protocols to study the treatment of metastatic cancers with radiosurgery, with plans to establish radiosurgery protocols using proton therapy.

UF’s Proton Therapy Institute is one of six proton beam facilities in the country.

He holds three patents, one for a method of predicting and treating brain tumor spread using MRI and external beam radiation, one for Esculentoside A, an agent that has been studied for its anti-inflammatory effects and one for the use of certain drugs that block interleukin-1 activity in the prevention of and therapy for radiation toxicity of normal tissues.

“One of the main reasons I’m coming to Florida is that there is a unique opportunity — with the scientists and clinicians that are at the University of Florida both in Gainesville and Jacksonville, and with the proton beam and the cooperative cancer venture with Shands HealthCare and the Moffitt Cancer Center — to actually identify categories of patients with metastasis who are still curable, and identify approaches to following patients with cancer so as to have early detection of any metastatic disease,” Okunieff said. “The notion that together we can identify opportunities to cure people that currently are not given that hope and actually achieve that in a fairly substantial number of patients because we have technologies like the proton beam, because there is so much excellence in clinical care and such a history of that at UF, and because the university is so broad in scope and has so many facets that can be brought to bear to achieve the needed technologies, to do the breakthrough science needed to implement a new paradigm for the treatment of cancer … that’s the main reason I wake up in the morning and why I want to come to Florida.”

Okunieff’s arrival is expected to help build additional opportunities for UF, Shands HealthCare and Moffitt Cancer Center to collaborate across the spectrum of cancer patient care, research and educational activities. That includes offering new clinical trials to large numbers of Floridians that will likely speed discoveries that benefit these patients, he said.

“It will be an unparalleled opportunity; there won’t be any other cancer center collaboration with that scope,” Okunieff said, adding that he also has an interest in the centers’ mutual interest in cancer survivorship programs.

Okunieff will further invigorate UF and Shands’ cancer programs, said Dr. Michael Good, interim dean of the UF College of Medicine.

“His approaches to radiation treatments will save lives for our patients, particularly those with multiple metastases, and shape the treatments prescribed in the future,” Good said. “He and his research teams are working in exciting areas to better understand how to measure the effects of radiation — both intended and unintended — on humans. Because they are genetically based, the technologies he is developing have the potential to diagnose not just cancer, but other diseases as well.”

Okunieff is an outstanding clinician and health-care provider as well as a world-renowned researcher, said Timothy Goldfarb, Shands HealthCare CEO, who added, “He will help us bring the most innovative and unique therapies to the patients and communities we serve through our Gainesville and Jacksonville academic medical centers. This is an exciting time for the UF and Shands HealthCare system as we open the Shands Cancer Hospital at UF and further our resolve in the fight against cancer.”

Okunieff completed a postdoctoral fellowship in medicine at Harvard Medical School, followed by a fellowship in radiation medicine at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. He also holds bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering and computer science and in biological science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He was an assistant professor in radiation oncology at Harvard Medical School from 1988 to 1993.

Okunieff has published widely in the literature and is a member of numerous professional societies, including the American Association for Cancer Research and the American Society of Therapeutic Radiology and Oncology. He is radiation oncology chair for the Southwest Oncology Group, one of the largest of the NCI-supported cancer clinical trials cooperative groups in the United States. He also is a diplomate of the National Board of Medical Examiners and serves on several committees that oversee the safety and quality of therapeutic radiation delivery.

In addition, he is a past president of the International Society on Oxygen Transport to Tissue. He also is past a member of the Radiation Therapy Oncology Group’s executive committee and a past chair of its translational research program. He is a sought-after speaker in his field and has delivered dozens of lectures nationally and internationally.

“I particularly enjoy growing people’s careers, that is, identifying stars and helping them to achieve their best,” Okunieff said. “That’s one of my drives for wanting to be the Cancer Center director — having academic children, if you will.”