Dr. Geoffrey Ginsburg: A Personalized Look at Medicine

Author:  Wendy Liu

Dr. Geoffrey S. Ginsburg, M.D., Ph.D., currently serves as the Director of Duke University’s IGSP (Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy) Center for Genomic Medicine and is Professor of Medicine and Pathology at Duke University Medical Center. Before joining academia, he was Program Director for Cardiovascular Disease at Millennium Pharmaceuticals, Inc, and subsequently held the position of Vice President of Molecular and Personalized Medicine. In addition to conducting award-winning research on the new field of personalized medicine, Dr. Ginsburg is a founder of the Personalized Medicine Coalition (PMC), a non-profit group that is working to promote the benefits of personalized medicine. In December 2006, Dr. Ginsburg joined VisEn's Medical Scientific Advisory Board.


Wendy (JYI): What kinds of activities (e.g. research, courses, volunteer work) did you engage in as an undergraduate that you feel has helped you in your career? Which would you recommend for undergraduate science students? 

Dr. Ginsburg: I was a chemistry major and very interested in how drugs were made. I spent all four summers at Wesleyan in the lab and had some gifted mentors including Dr. Albert Fry and Max Tishler. Max was the head of R and D at Merck before he ‘retired’ to be the head of chemistry at Wesleyan. Both he and Al were inspirations to me and taught me how to think about scientific problems. Max also provided the context of thinking about how to conduct research aimed at human health problems. There is no substitute for the laboratory environment in teaching young students about the philosophy and power of scientific thought.

How did you feel about working as a clinical cardiologist? And what are the benefits of obtaining an M.D., Ph.D., as opposed to just one and not the other?

I chose cardiology as a clinical subspecialty because that was where the patients were who manifest the outcomes of my research interests – coronary artery disease, myocardial infarctions. My laboratory worked on the genetics of atherosclerosis. For those interested in translational and applied research having the training that lets you understand the medical problems and issues (MD) and the tools, knowledge, [and] skills to address them at the molecular and mechanistic level (PhD) is invaluable!

As the Director of Duke's Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy's Center for Genomic Medicine since 2004, what do you think is the best aspect about your job?

I love the diversity of the interface that genome sciences have with medicine. The genome has so much to offer to medical knowledge and the treatment of disease. It knows no anatomic or demographic barriers. One can work on ANY problem in medicine using the genome sciences. Moreover, being at the leading edge of genomic medicine at Duke, we have the advantage of setting the scientific and policy agendas associated with genomics, medicine and society. So not only do I get to work with bright and enthusiastic undergrads, grads, post docs and faculty at Duke but also I work with the senior leaders at NIH, FDA, IOM, HHS and other government organizations involved with scientific policy decisions. It’s simply the best of all worlds!

Why did you decide to enter the fields of genomic research and personalized medicine? 

Long ago I became frustrated with the imprecise and trial and error nature of medicine. I thought there had to be a better way to match a person’s health and disease characteristics with their treatment options. At Millennium Pharmaceuticals I had the opportunity to work with people who shared this vision and who had the talent and resources to begin to tackle the problem of developing drugs for the individuals vs. the current ‘one size fits all’ approach.

What kind of work environment is this? 

The Center for Genomic Medicine and the IGSP are unique team oriented environments. The emphasis on communal goals of projects vs. those of any one individual is the prime importance. This is VERY different from most academic environments in which individual accomplishments are rewarded. That’s not to say individuals are not important – they are. We hope we attract the very best talent to the IGSP and CGM and that culturally they will fit into the team approach. You cannot not do big science and attack big clinical problems on your own. You need a team of experts working together.

How are you able to balance so many commitments at once? Is this career compatible with pursuing outside interests?

We live in a complex world today with Internet and email and expectations that everything can be done and that it can be done at once! Everyone needs to have a balance between work and family and life. I personally enjoy music, photography, cooking, wine and running – not in that order necessarily.

But you can manage complex commitments with good communications and a dedicated team and family.

You once served as Vice President of Molecular and Personalized Medicine at Millennium Pharmaceuticals in Boston. Can you describe what it was like to be at the center of one of the world’s top biotechnology enterprises?

This was a fantastic opportunity to be part of a leading biopharmaceutical company harnessing the genome to make better and more effective personalized medicines. At first it was like being at an academic research institute – except with untold resources and talent that I could not have imagined all working together toward a common set of goals. Now you see where I got some of the ideas for the kind of culture to create here at Duke. I was charged with the development of the genomic and imaging tools that would help the company’s clinical groups develop drugs for the right patient at the right dose at the right time – personalized medicine. We were the leaders in the field and in many cases helped invent it. This was an incredibly fun time with high stakes. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

What kinds of skills were crucial for that position?

Creativity, innovative spirit, entrepreneurship, management and leadership. Believing in the people around you and that nothing is impossible.

Why did you decide to leave that company? 

I left because the company changed as it needed to be viable commercially. And with that I found a new opportunity here at Duke to help us lead in the field of genomic medicine and to do it in the context of patients and patient care (vs. the context of developing products for a company). It was definitely the right thing to do. And it shows us how much opportunity there is to take learnings from industry and bring them to academia and vice versa. These two (industry and academia) must partner for human health to truly benefit. Having experiences in both worlds is a tremendous asset.

How did you come about to establishing the Personalized Medicine Coalition with other colleagues? What kind of work do you do for this non-profit group? 

In 2002 we recognized that no one in Washington DC really understood personalized medicine. Yet legislators and others were making policy decisions that could impact this field. So we created a coalition of all the stakeholders to begin to address how to educate each other and the government on this important and evolving field of medicine. I now serve on the board of directors and assist the PMC in its strategy and communications, particularly when it comes to the science supporting personalized medicine.