Charting a New Course: From Clinical Investigator to University President

A Conversation With Fadlo R. Khuri, MD, FACP

Get Permission

Fadlo R. Khuri, MD, FACP

There is no question that the American University of Beirut casts a very large shadow and has a major impact on the political discourse in the region, the development of modern engineering and knowledge, and medical technology and research.

—Fadlo R. Khuri, MD, FACP
The most surprising thing about medicine, and oncology in particular, is how much physicians get back from their patients. We find inspiration, hope, and confidence in difficult times and the ingenuity to figure out a solution when we can’t treat someone’s disease by the book.

—Fadlo R. Khuri, MD, FACP

What first intrigued Fadlo R. Khuri, MD, FACP, about the prospect of becoming the 16th President of the American University of Beirut (AUB) in Lebanon was the chance to give back to an institution and a country that had given him so much. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1963, Dr. Khuri was raised in Beirut and followed his great grandfathers, paternal grandfather, father—Raja N. Khuri, MD, later served as Dean of the AUB Medical School—and mother in attending AUB, but he left the university in 1982, during the country’s raging civil war, to study at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

“I didn’t leave because of the war,” said Dr. Khuri. “I left because I was attracted to explore aspects of Yale in terms of exposure to a broader liberal arts education while preparing for medical school, which would have been more difficult at AUB at that time.”

After graduating from Yale, Dr. Khuri earned his medical degree from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York and completed his medical residency in internal medicine at Boston City Hospital, followed by a fellowship in hematology and medical oncology at Tufts University/New England Medical Center. Dr. Khuri then began a remarkable 20-year career as one of the leading translational clinical investigators and physicians in lung and aerodigestive medical oncology, first at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and for the past 13 years at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.

Before starting his new position at AUB on September 1, 2015, Dr. Khuri was Deputy Director of Emory’s Winship Cancer Institute, Professor and Chair of the Department of Hematology and Medical Oncology, Executive Associate Dean for Research, and the Roberto C. Goizueta Distinguished Chair for Cancer Research at Emory. During his tenure at Emory, Dr. Khuri was instrumental in securing a National Cancer Institute (NCI) designation for Winship Cancer Institute, the only cancer institute in Georgia to achieve an NCI designation, and was co-head of the $12.5 million NCI-funded Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) in head and neck ­cancer.

Dr. Khuri is the recipient of numerous awards, including the American Association for Cancer Research Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Memorial Award and the Nagi Sahyoun Award of the Middle East Medical Assembly for his groundbreaking research in lung and aerodigestive cancers. He has been named one of America’s Top Cancer Doctors by Castle Connolly Medical for the past 8 years. Dr. Khuri is a long-time member of ASCO and has served as a member of ASCO’s Cancer Prevention Committee, the Conquer Cancer Foundation Grants Selection Committee, the Journal of Clinical Oncology Editorial Board, and the Scientific Program Committee.

The ASCO Post talked with Dr. Khuri about his decision to leave Emory University; the new responsibilities and challenges he faces; and his goal of making AUB the premier liberal arts institution in the Middle East.

Deep Roots in Family History

Please talk about the decision-making that went into changing the course of your career from leading clinical investigator and physician in the field of lung and aerodigestive medical oncology to university president.

I was elected to the Board of Trustees of AUB in 2014, so I was aware of some of the challenges the university faced but had not initially considered the position of President when I was first approached. However, after thinking more about it and looking at what the university’s needs are and my skill set, although I’m not going to say it is a perfect fit, I liked what I could do and what I could contribute and thought it would be an important use of the substantial number of remaining years in my career.

Several areas of importance stood out to me from my very first meeting to discuss this position. AUB is an institution that has educated my great grandfathers, my grandfather, both of my parents, my wife’s grandfather, and her parents, and it is where I started, so its roots run deep in my family history.

What I saw in AUB is an institution that has an impact on its region like no other university I know of in the world. There are great universities in China, India, and the United States, and they counterbalance each other. I don’t mean any disrespect to the other great universities in Lebanon and in the region, but there is no question that AUB casts a very large shadow and has a major impact on the political discourse in the region, the development of modern engineering and knowledge, and medical technology and research.

Furthermore, AUB is a fundamental driver of the American liberal arts ethos in the region, and I thought I could contribute to strengthening its liberal arts curriculum with regard to my skill set in building communities of trust that would be valuable for that institution and for that region. So I took the plunge and less than 7 weeks after that first interview, I was informed that I was the search committee’s and the Board leadership’s first choice for President.

Innovators in Research and Education

What will be your primary responsibilities as President?

My main goal is to ensure that the university continues to thrive and that the culture of progressive thought and innovation, service, and generosity to the community continues to be supported. Another goal is that the deans of the six faculties that I’ll have the privilege of overseeing, including Agriculture and Food Sciences; Arts and Sciences; Engineering and Architecture; Health Sciences; Medicine; the Suliman S. Olayan School of Business; as well as university interdisciplinary programs, all get supported to the degree they need. I also want to drive the university toward becoming a major research institution, which it was well into the 1980s and has been rebuilding since the end of the Lebanese Civil War in 1990.

In the Middle East, the amount of funding support for scientific research is relatively low. We don’t have the equivalent of the National Institutes of Health to provide funding, but you can make a strategic investment in scholarship in the arts, economics, political sciences, business, and medicine. So we are going to have to be innovators in education and innovators in research without losing that liberal arts ethos that makes AUB such a fundamental driver of the region’s moral compass.

Bold Choices

What are your greatest challenges?

The university has gone through some periods of unrest, and this past year, students organized protests over increases in tuition. I would like to slow down the increase in student tuition, as I think the students have a point there, but we also have to show the value in the unique and high-quality education we provide.

We also need to invest more in making AUB a premier research institution. I’d like to be here long enough to produce clear evidence that AUB is one of the 100 greatest and most valuable universities in the world, which, from the perspective of an American institution in a country of 4 million people and close to 2 million refugees, is not going to be easy.

I think we can get it done because the quality of our faculty and students is stellar, but we are going to have to make some bold choices and not make as many mistakes as we could otherwise afford. Still, I want to emphasize that my goal is to develop an institutional culture where people take risks, and even if there is an honest mistake, that mistake is celebrated and not castigated.

Mentor, Teacher, Supervisor

Will you continue to see patients?

I’ll be seeing patients at least a couple of times a month, but I’m not going to have a private clinic; I’ll have a teaching clinic. I have superb colleagues, including at least two excellent lung and aerodigestive physicians at AUB, and they will keep the private patients. I’d like to be a teaching attending with residents and fellows and with my colleagues and still help mentor them to develop new trials and participate in global trials of new agents, new genomic drivers, and new treatment modalities like immunotherapy.

I would like to think that my role will be even more as a mentor, teacher, and supervisor than my work at Emory. I’ve always enjoyed teaching nurse practitioners, physician assistants, residents, fellows, medical students, and international faculty, so I will have more of a teaching role at AUB.

A Team of Stars at Emory

How difficult was it to give up your research program at Emory University?

In one sense, it was very difficult, and in another, it was somewhat rewarding. It’s very rewarding because we’ve grown a team of stars at Emory who are all very good citizens, outstanding scientists, and thought leaders in the biology and treatment of cancer.

For example, the lung cancer research program at Emory is superbly led by Haian Fu, PhD [Leader, Discovery and Development Therapeutics Program], and Suresh S. ­Ramalingam, MD [Director of Medical Oncology and the Lung Cancer Program]. Dr. ­Ramalingam is a major leader at ASCO and the Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group, and Dr. Fu is one of the leading cancer biologists focusing on protein-protein interactions. There are superb scientists such as Jing Chen, PhD [Co-Director of Experimental Therapeutics Program in Leukemia], Adam Marcus, PhD [Director, Integrated Cellular Imaging Shared Resource], and others as well as great clinical investigators, such as Taofeek Owonikoko, MD, PhD [Associate Professor in the Department of Hematology and Medical Oncology], who was just accepted to the ASCO Leadership Development Program. The team has a lot of depth, and I’m very proud of them.

I’m actually happy to step back and see them succeed. But I will miss going to their lab meetings and seeing the fabulous progress made by their undergraduate and graduate students, post-docs, and fellows. I am a permanent student and love science, so I will miss those interactions and the day-to-day, week-to-week accomplishments and delight in witnessing their discoveries. I love the idea of not just proving our scientific hypotheses but repudiating them as well and helping create new ones.

I’m realistic enough to know that I’m not going to have the bandwidth to help drive that kind of mission individually at AUB. I’m going to have to help drive it collectively. But I am keeping my collaborations with Emory, and I’ll remain part of the program project as it goes forward.

Change for the Right Reasons

You spent most of your youth in Lebanon. Are you excited to be back there and in a position to make a major difference in the region?

I’m extremely excited. The real challenge in life is about being able to reinvent and redefine yourself every 10 to 15 years, and I think you should only do that if you are sure you are doing it for the right reasons. And to the best of my ability to look into my soul, I think I have made this change for the right reasons.

I want to help contribute to a new era of understanding and liberal thinking and scientific renaissance as well as a renaissance in the humanities in the region. I was very fortunate to grow up in the Near East. I had a wonderful childhood and adolescence despite the war. I learned a lot, and a lot of what I learned is because of this university, so it is time for me to help continue that tradition and maybe accelerate it a little and give back.

The most surprising thing about medicine, and oncology in particular, is how much physicians get back from their patients. We find inspiration, hope, and confidence in difficult times and the ingenuity to figure out a solution when we can’t treat someone’s disease by the book.

Medicine is a very rewarding two-way stream, so from that perspective, I think it would be great to be able to contribute in a meaningful way to AUB and to Lebanon because they have contributed so much to me and to my growth and will continue to contribute to my life.

I enjoy being a member of ASCO and the American Association for Cancer Research and will continue to be a member of both organizations. I will probably break my nearly perfect 20-year streak of attendance at the annual meetings but will likely come to each meeting every other year, and I will certainly attend the meetings online because it’s not just about the learning that is important to me. It is being part of the community of scholars and physicians that I do not want to lose touch with. ■

Disclosure: Dr. Khuri reported no potential conflicts of interest.