Sitting down with Michael Dake, University of Arizona Health Sciences Senior Vice President
Michael Dake bridges the space between medicine’s present and the future with clarity and a vision toward progress. Predicting disease, preventing cancer — he sees the possibility that both can happen. And seeds have been planted toward both efforts in the making of the Center for Advanced Molecular and Immunological Therapies (CAMI), where, he says, University of Arizona researchers will be at the epicenter of changing how we understand and treat disease. He reminds us that how we handle health care going forward affects us all.
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THE UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA?
I saw a chance to create opportunities for medical education, research and clinical care that could be distinctive and differentiated. It was very attractive to think about the possibilities of working with our clinical partner, Banner Health.
WHAT UNIQUE PERSPECTIVE DO YOU OFFER?
In my training, I was both an internist and a pulmonary physician before becoming a radiologist and an interventional radiologist. I’ve sampled a number of specialties, including cardiothoracic surgery, and I am able to see the medical profession from various angles. It’s one of those things where you hope your experiences are additive, building one on top of the other, so that in some way you’re wiser, smarter and more capable of dealing with issues that come up.
Yes, I have a clarity of vision and decision making that I didn’t have before. It’s about weighing what’s the right thing; what’s the wrong thing. What is the best way to do this; what’s not. That only comes with trial and error through your career experiences.
WHAT MAKES THE UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA SPECIAL?
It’s a very wide, diverse institution, and there are world leaders in every corner. And I’m not sure I was really expecting that. Certainly, we’re known for astronomy and water resources, but there isn’t a single discipline that doesn’t include top-of-the-field experts. And there’s a real loyalty to the university — not only in the faculty and staff, but the loyalty of the community as well. I grew up in South Bend, Indiana, near the University of Notre Dame. When it came to the town, it wasn’t really adversarial, but there was a tension. And I don’t feel that here. There is a lot of community support and a feeling that the university and the community are collaborating with and benefiting from one another.
HOW DOES PHILANTHROPY PLAY A ROLE?
It is absolutely critical. We are not a private university that has the benefit of large endowments. As a public university with a land-grant mission and obligations to the state, we really depend on philanthropic support to help our initiatives move forward. There’s no other way we can do it. We, likewise, depend on our municipalities — city, state, counties. We work around the state in a network of health centers serving rural, border and urban underserved populations, making a strong connection between community and university. In everything we think about, we want to look to our donors and philanthropic support to make sure we are aligned with their vision and find initiatives we can work on together that we both feel proud of.
WHAT CONNECTS UARIZONA’S TWO MEDICAL SCHOOLS?
We have a unique situation with two independent medical schools that have separate admissions and accreditation processes. Our goal is to enhance the potential synergy with initiatives that catalyze interaction — one of which is CAMI — to present opportunities for people in Tucson and Phoenix to work together.
CAN YOU SHARE MORE ABOUT CAMI?
CAMI stands for the Center for Advanced Molecular and Immunological Therapies. CAMI will be a biomedical research hub to be constructed on the Phoenix Bioscience Core. Recent funding from the state of Arizona and former Gov. Doug Ducey as well as our first private donation, from the Steele Foundation, helps set plans in motion, propelling us forward in developing what will be a transformational center for the state of Arizona and its residents.
WHAT DISCOVERY WILL HAPPEN WITH CAMI?
The last decade and a half was really focused on the human genome. We’re entering a slightly different phase now, which is the human immune biome. In other words, what can immunology and our own body’s defenses do to help us avoid chronic diseases — to treat cancers, for example — and to guard against infectious diseases? We’re also interested in autoimmune diseases. And lastly, an area that intersects all of those is inflammation — how can we really understand inflammation in our body?
IS INFLAMMATION BEHIND MOST DISEASE?
Yes, inflammation is a root cause of many diseases. The question is, what provokes inflammation, and how can we deal with it? We want to get to a place of real-time immune monitoring. So, at any one snapshot in time, we can understand the status of our immune system and what it is reacting to. We have an opportunity to be world class in immunology, and that’s what CAMI will provide.
WHY IS SUPPORT FOR CAMI IMPORTANT?
We are incredibly grateful for the state and private funding we’ve received so far, and we need all the continued support we can get. Everything that CAMI will work on is only one degree of separation from almost everyone on the planet. We have all had — or likely know someone who has had — COVID, cancer, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, etc. So, hopefully, our mission is something donors will want to invest in. Understanding how immunity and inflammation play a role in these diseases and applying immunotherapies in real time has the potential to change how we understand and treat disease. How we handle health care going forward affects us all.
WHERE ELSE IS MEDICINE HEADED?
We’d like to move from treating disease to actually getting in front of it. We’ve always wanted to do this, but it hasn’t been possible. Things are starting to come together that will allow us to predict, then prevent. How do we predict which diseases you are predisposed to and then take steps to avoid that? That’s the real future.
We spend most of our money — 80% of health care spending — on people with chronic diseases, and chronic disease doesn’t exist in isolation. It exists with three or four or five chronic diseases, and if we could do something to prevent just two or three of those, it would make a big difference.
WHAT IS YOUR MOONSHOT?
Preventing cancer. One out of every 5 people will get cancer, and 1 out of 3 of those will die from cancer. It’s the biggest fear most patients have. It’s the biggest unsolved problem, and we’re actually making progress.
That’s a moonshot, and it’s not going to be a magic pill. There will be different treatments for different types of cancer. For patients with metastatic cancer, the life expectancy really hasn’t changed in 20, 30, 40 years. We’re starting to make progress in that regard. So, whether it is through immunotherapy, cellular therapy or molecular therapy, we will make progress with cancer.
I can’t say cancer will be cured, but in many cases, we will be able to turn it into a chronic disease that people can live with. You may never be truly free of it, but you’ll be able to live your life, carry on your daily routine and enjoy a longer lifespan.
— Sarah Beaudry