Moffitt Cancer Center's CEO is working to cure cancer amid a pandemic—while playing in a rock band

Moffitt Cancer Center
(Moffitt Cancer Center)

Viral videos on TikTok aren't usually what comes to mind when one thinks of a CEO of a major cancer center.

But for Patrick Hwu, M.D., making videos for fun with his family—including two 20-something daughters—was just part of another day juggling life in a pandemic while leading the Tampa-based Moffitt Cancer Center. 

Hwu, who was a longtime cancer researcher and administrator at MD Anderson before taking the gig at Moffitt In August, doesn't mind the attention. After all, for years, he's been in a rock and roll band with some of the nation's foremost cancer scientists.

And he's made it his mission to shine a big spotlight on the work that Moffit does to accelerate progress against the deadliest forms of cancer.

"I would love to have more people understand what we have to offer at Moffitt Cancer Center," Hwu said. "I often call it the best-kept secret in the country when it comes to cancer care."

I caught up with Hwu recently to discuss his ambitions, including the challenges he's taken on as CEO of one of the nation's busiest cancer centers, the biotech hub he is hoping to build in Tampa and the importance of having a life while saving lives. Here's our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Fierce Healthcare: You say Moffitt is a "best-kept secret" among laypeople. How do you change that?
Patrick Hwu: If you ask someone at MD Anderson, "What’s Moffitt Cancer Center?" they know it’s an outstanding research center... I think [you get the word out to patients] by having novel clinical trials that will help them get tomorrow’s therapies year in advance and then having more people fly into your facility to get their therapy. That’s a major thing. If we have novel clinical trials, then we’ll get referrals from all over the country and once these people fly back to their regions, we’ll start to generate this national reputation ... A jewel-like Moffitt Cancer Center shouldn’t be participating in something that’s got 100 centers in it because that’s for smaller centers that need those trials. I want to focus our efforts more where we can uniquely create something that’s going to drop the death rate. 

FH: When people hear "Moffitt Cancer Center," what you want them to think of? 
PH: Cell therapy ... Let’s try to prevent cancer in the first place. But then the two main modalities are immunotherapy, where we get the immune cells to recognize and do what I call the "kiss of death" and kill the cancer cells. The second way is targeted therapy, where we understand the molecular circuitry that’s turning on the cancer so we can flip the light switch with pills, often to shut those down. Those are the two main therapeutic approaches for cancer we’re going to emphasize. 

FH: What kind of investments do you expect you’ll have to make? 
PH: Making that virus [used for certain cell therapies] is often the rate-limiting step. You’ve got to contract it out. It takes months. It’s a rate-limiting step not only for academic institutions but for the industry. So we want to develop a large viral production facility. And then the other rate-limiting step is often the technicians that work in these labs: cell therapy technical staff. We’re going to start a training program to train many cell therapy technologists. ... then we’ll not only be able to do a lot of research ourselves but we’ll continue to attract ... even more cell therapy companies to come here and build this biotech community in the Tampa Bay area.

FH: What experiences from your previous roles at MD Anderson that you're drawing on at Moffitt?
PH: In one great example, they’ve done very well building out their satellites. They call them their "Houston area locations." We have one satellite built: Moffitt International Plaza near the airport in Tampa. That’s something that clearly we have to do here to take our medicine out to the people and where they live so we’re going to be building Moffitt area clinics to try to make it more convenient for patients to get their medical care and we’re also going to include clinical trials which are very important. So I’m going to take my learnings in how we built the Houston area locations to the Moffitt area clinics.

FH: What has it been like taking over the reins of a major healthcare organization in the middle of this global pandemic?

PH: Cancer care has been a challenge during COVID. But as I said we have some incredible executives like our chief medical officer Bob Keenan and the whole team, which have handled COVID extremely well. It’s critical we don’t have patients wait. They get their screenings, they get their treatment. The larger the cancer grows, the poorer the outcome. We need to do that in a safe way. So we had a great screening system where we make sure to account for all of the team members, as well as patients coming in. We’ve had low infection rates within the hospital. We’ve gotten back to our normal activity. We’re able to take care of all of the patients we needed to take care of with their cancers, which is critical and we’ve done it in a safe way and I’m very proud of the team. But it is a challenge because some patients still are a little hesitant so we really have to work on education to make sure they know it’s safe.

FH: You also took over at a time of crisis as the former CEO of Moffitt, as well as several researchers, resigned for violations of conflict of interest rules through their work in China. Can you talk about your role in moving past that and ensuring it doesn’t happen again?

PH: We have to make sure that we move on from this because what we described about changing healthcare systems, about people dying of cancer, we’ve got to spend our energy on that and it’s a heavy lift moving forward. We have to make sure we are fair and honest and what I’m impressed with at this place is they’re constantly auditing. They’re the ones that came up with all of these issues. It was all self-discovered, self-reported. So it shows how we just have an open and transparent system. That’s how you prevent issues, is you have an open and transparent system. How do you prevent these in the future? Education and transparency. What we’re not going to do is stop working in a global sense because, as I said, cancer kills 10 million people around the world.

FH: Any pieces of advice you’d offer to other organizations on preventing and addressing conflicts?
PH: Look at patients and know what your north star is: It’s to help patients decrease death from cancer. As long as you’re following that north star, you’ll be OK. If you’re working in a fair and transparent way with a collaborator, of course, you’re not going to steal each other's information and you’re going to have tight cybersecurity. You should have tight cybersecurity. And making sure it’s open. Let’s say we’re collaborating with country A, B or C, let’s tell them about the collaborations. It's the same thing if I’m collaborating with someone at MIT or in California or anyone else, it’s "Alright, let’s work together. If we develop something, who is going to own what percentages and let's just make sure we have that all in writing and it's very clear." If people can do that in a transparent fashion, it’s just going to enhance collaboration. What you can’t do is stop collaborating.

FH: You mentioned cybersecurity. What are you doing to ensure security against increasing cyber threats against healthcare? 
 Everyone, even a top cancer center like ours, is constantly getting attacked by different areas. We have almost a mission control room that’s constantly monitoring for things like these. We know they’re coming in and we can see what’s coming into our network. We’re also trying to separate work from home. A lot of times, threats come in from our home emails. Right now, the computer I’m talking to you on is my work computer and I have no access on this computer if you were to send me something on my home email. This is simply a Moffitt Cancer Center work computer. I think the more we can separate those two things the better. 

FH: When he was vice president, Joe Biden was leading the "cancer moonshot" project. What impact does having Biden back as president have on the industry? Does the change in administrations change anything?
It’s really early, but the president totally respects science. He put Eric Lander, who I know and totally respect and is head of the Broad Institute in Boston, at a cabinet-level position as a science advisor. I really respect that. Having someone like Eric who totally understands genomes and what we need to do to take science to the next level, I have great confidence in having someone like that in that position. I’m excited by the whole thing.

I worked for the federal government for 14 years working for Steven Rosenberg at the National Cancer Institute. I could tell you within the federal government, there are some really selfless, servant-oriented people who have worked for decades there. Within the FDA and the National Cancer Institute, I know a lot of these people and they want nothing but the right thing for patients. These people stabilize everything through administrations. They were all there over the last four years. We haven’t missed a beat over the last four years because, thank God, they were there.

FH: Switching subjects to what you like to do outside of the office: you play in a rock band?

PH: I love music. It's a great release from the challenges of the day. It stimulates the right brain, that creative side. I’ve always been in a band of some sort. I still have this band, The Checkpoints, which plays for the Society of Immunotherapy of Cancer, the largest immunotherapy group in the world of which I’m currently president for the next two years. We formed a band with Jim Allison, who is the Nobel laureate for immunotherapy. He plays the harmonica, but they call it the blues harp. [At this point in the interview, he grabs a collection of bobbleheads of each of the band members and begins to name off each.] Rachel, lead singer, used to work for BMS. Tom Gajewski plays the guitar. That’s me playing the keyboard. Before COVID, we would play at ASCO at either the House of Blues or more recently at Buddy Guy's. We also play at our November meeting. 

I had a Houston band I tearfully had to leave. But I’m hoping to get together a Tampa band.

FH: And of course, I have to ask about the Tiktok videos ... 

PH: A lot of this stuff I had to learn from my kids. I had no idea what Zoom was and now I use it all the time. Same thing with TikTok. I still don’t have it on my phone. I have a 20- and a 22-year-old daughter. One just graduated from Vassar, the other was a college student, a dance major in Orange County California at Chapman University. They were into making these TikToks. So they coerced me. Of course, I always go along with them. I said, "Alright, no one’s going to see this anyway." So we did a bunch of TikToks and dances and all of a sudden, I think when you get your parents involved and they’re actually trying to dance, people think that’s kind of funny. So we got some views on that. It was a great distraction. At that age, they should be out there living their lives. But instead, they were in our little cocoon. So I think it was a great distraction for everyone. 

FH: How do you find time to have a life while holding such a big job? 

PH: It’s by having great people around you and trusting those people. If there’s someone who wants to make every decision—"What flavor is the cake going to be in the cafeteria this week?"—I’m just kidding, but if you want to make every single decision, you’re going to be bogged down and you’re going to be the bottleneck for your organization. If instead, you hire great people and you develop them as leaders and develop leaders all around you, then the place seems to run itself and it's your job to make sure it's heading in the right direction. That’s the way—to grow other people around you.

So I spend much of my career mentoring people because I think that’s one of the ways we can through generations influence the planet more than anything else we do. By generating and mentoring and nurturing leaders, not only does that help society in a great way, it keeps you sane and able to play in a band and be CEO. It’s extremely important no matter what you’re doing to have a life.