[Editor's note: Matthew Dallek is expressing his personal opinions and is not associated with U.S. News's America's Best Hospitals rankings; click here for an explanation of the rankings methodology.]
In April 2007, Dr. John Cameron of Johns Hopkins's Sol Goldman Pancreatic Cancer Research Center successfully removed a six centimeter islet-cell tumor from my pancreas and basically saved my life. The Goldman Center features some of the best pancreatic cancer doctors bar none, and Dr. Cameron is the most experienced pancreatic cancer surgeon in the world.
They are the reason I was not surprised last month when U.S. News & World Report published its annual rankings of America’s Best Hospitals that Johns Hopkins was number one. What makes Hopkins so special isn't only that it has great doctors and world-class clinical facilities, but it also has a strong record of translating its research into improved care and outcomes for its patients. So-called "translational research" is fundamental to Hopkins’s mission, and the Goldman center is Exhibit A for the promise of translational research.
Take Dr. Cameron. His surgical skills are matched by his history of life-saving research discoveries. Years ago, he developed a new approach to performing the Whipple--among the biggest surgeries in modern medical practice. Dr. Cameron's discovery ultimately led to a drastic reduction in the mortality rate from the Whipple; where it stood at approximately 20 percent prior to Dr. Cameron's discovery, it was cut to less than 2 percent of patients afterward. (Rumor has it that the surgery could be renamed to “the Cameron.”)
That translational research tradition is as strong as ever. Dr. Ralph Hruban, the Goldman Center’s director, calls Hopkins's emphasis on translational research part of its “constant push to improve patient care by applying discoveries in the research lab to patients, and conversely taking needs identified by taking care of patients to the research labs.” Dr. Hruban explains that Hopkins’s surgeons bring more patients, providing more tumors to study. Studying tumors “leads to the sequencing of the pancreatic endocrine tumor genome, which then can be used to identify gene-specific drug targets, which then improves patient care,” says Dr. Hruban.
At the Goldman Center, doctors are working furiously to translate their lab findings into useful discoveries that will benefit patients. They are seeking to develop simple blood tests that will detect pancreatic cancer in its earliest stages, when curative surgery is still an option. They are busy sequencing the islet-cell genome so they can understand for the first time why some islet-cell cancers are aggressive whereas others (such as my own) are relatively indolent. This still-robust tradition of translational research at Hopkins--epitomized by the Goldman Center--is among the reasons why U.S. News was on the mark with its decision to keep Hopkins in the top slot.
(Full disclosure: I do an annual bike ride to raise money for pancreatic cancer research at Johns Hopkins.)