When Dr. Gerald Batist began his career in oncology over 30 years ago, his dream was to see cancer conquered. Idealism drove the young physician.
Today, much wiser, he can state confidently that the end of the disease is in sight.
“Globally, more people are living with cancer than dying from it,” he said. “Survival is being extended, and the cure rates are up.
“I once imagined a world that was cancer-free; now we are starting to see it… We are moving very quickly.”
Batist’s contribution to that goal has been recognized with two back-to-back honours this summer by the province and the country. He was named a Knight of the National Order of Quebec and a member of the Order of Canada for his leadership in developing innovative cancer treatments.
Batist is director of the Jewish General Hospital’s (JGH) renowned Segal Cancer Centre, which he helped create 10 years ago with a $10 million award from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation. It was the first fully integrated research and clinical facility of its kind.
Twenty years ago, he founded and is still scientific director of the Montreal Centre for Experimental Therapeutics in Cancer, based at the JGH’s Lady Davis Institute, which is dedicated to translating lab and clinical research findings into practical application in the prevention and treatment of cancer.
He and his team are in the forefront of exploring the potential of personalized medicine. The sequencing of the human genome and technological advances are opening the way to therapies tailored to the person’s DNA and even down to the protein level, he said.
The Segal is pioneering the use of robotics to minimize surgical invasion.
At the same time, it is open to the investigation of complementary therapies. For example, studies are being done on the use of traditional Chinese herbs in lung cancer.
What researchers are finding is that different types of cancer often respond to the same drugs, he said, owing to a better understanding of tumours at the molecular level.
For example, certain breast and gastric cancers exhibit an over-expression of the HER2 gene and may both be treated by Herceptin.
In addition to being a researcher, clinician and administrator, Batist is a professor and from 2001 to 2011, he chaired McGill University’s oncology department.
A McGill graduate in medicine, Batist returned to Montreal in 1985 after completing a post-doctorate at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md.
Batist was attracted to what physician and author Siddhartha Mukherjee calls “the emperor of all maladies” precisely because oncology has led the way in health research generally, including psycho-social support, ethics and managing chronic illness.
“Intellectually, it is a frontier domain. Most breakthroughs in biology or medicine are done in this field,” he said. “Personally, I like the intimacy, the closeness to patients. There is no pretense in caring for cancer,” he said.
Despite his overcharged schedule, Batist has always insisted on at least one clinical day a week.
“It reminds me why I’m doing the science,” he explained.
Working with cancer sufferers is not emotionally draining for Batist. “On the contrary, it’s inspirational. People discover their power and strengths they never knew they had. I find it uplifting, it’s not depressing,”
The fact that more and more patients are getting better, he acknowledges, is making it easier.
Batist stresses that what he has achieved is the result of teamwork, both in his own labs, and through the Canadian and international networks he has nurtured.
The JGH has been, Batist agrees, in some sense, “a victim of its own success,” attracting more cancer patients in recent years than its budget covers. They are coming from well beyond the JGH’s “catchment” area, now defined as West-Central Montreal, which serves a population of 400,000.
There have been numerous media reports of patients waiting long times or even being turned away. Batist says that’s misleading.
The Quebec government is right in saying that those who require standard therapy should seek it where they live, he believes.
There are excellent cancer centres on, for example, the South Shore and in Laval, he said.
The JGH should only be seeing those from outside its territory if they are candidates for experimental treatment, or cannot receive standard therapy in their area, Batist said. That does not preclude it from conferring with other centres, if necessary, he added.
Over 70,000 patient visits are made to the Segal annually, and it records about 3,000 new cases a year, he said.
“We serve people from all communities and receive support from them,” Batist said with pride. “I see the JGH as one of the faces of the Jewish community of Quebec.”