Debrief: John Boockvar, Feinstein Institute

John Boockvar, co-director of the Feinstein Center's brain tumor research.

John Boockvar has a lot on his mind, most of it regarding your mind. The co-director of the Feinstein Institute’s Brain Tumor Biotech Center is also an investigator in Feinstein’s Laboratory for Brain Tumor and Biology, director of Lenox Hill Hospital’s Brain Tumor Center, director of the Center for Pituitary Surgery and the Acoustic Neuroma Program at the New York Head & Neck Institute and, because he’s swimming in free time, a neurosurgery professor at the Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine. The full plate gives Boockvar – who earned his M.D. summa cum laude at Brooklyn’s SUNY Downstate Medical Center – visions of a Long Island innovation economy ripe with healthcare opportunities. In his words:

ON HOW OFTEN HE HEARS, “IT DOESN’T TAKE A BRAIN SURGEON:” My wife’s favorite line around the house. I get a lot of grief with that line.

LAB LETDOWN: It’s getting harder to be both a clinician and a clinical scientist. The traditional surgeon-scientist is going extinct. With reductions in government funding and an increase in bureaucracy and clinical demands, there are fewer doctors contributing to basic research.

RESEARCH REVIVAL: Fortunately, my relationship with (Feinstein Institute President and CEO) Dr. Kevin Tracey allows me sufficient time to run the clinical research that’s so important to our clinicians, but is becoming so rare in our field.

CENTER OF ATTENTION: The biggest news of the year (at Feinstein) is the opening of the Brain Tumor Biotech Center in September 2014. It really is the first entity of its kind in the country. The rationale is really to provide not an incubator, exactly, but a brick-and-mortar facility that helps small and midsize biotech companies move their product, device or IP to market.

ONE-STOP COMMERCIALIZATION: A lot of biotech companies have limited resources, so they outsource their different needs to other companies around the country. Feinstein does it all under one roof. Whether it’s preclinical testing with rodents, regulatory work or clinical trials, we have every piece of the puzzle ready, should a biotech company align with us. And we do it at a fraction of the cost of a typical larger Clinical Research Organization.

SPREADING IT AROUND: One of the benefits of our mission to get these companies’ drugs and devices into patients is it helps us generate business for the region. We’ve signed companies that pay Feinstein to do preclinical testing, we’ve met with a biotech company looking to do the same. We can hire post-docs and laboratory technicians to do the clinical work.

DIFFICULT DECISION: All of my basic scientific research, all the laboratory bench work, is done at Feinstein. My work is in glioblastoma, the most lethal of all human brain cancers. When I was doing my residency, I was drawn to the difficulties we had treating patients with this horrible disease. So I decided to specialize in glioblastoma and stem cell biology, and it just took off from there.

HOFSTRA INNOVATION: In the Department of Neurosurgery, we’re going to be doing some very innovative trials within the year using selective microcatheter and intraarterial drug delivery. We’ll be giving high doses of drugs to patients with brain diseases but sparing the body from the toxicity associated with standard administration by delivering the doses directly to the tumor. I was doing this at Cornell University before I was recruited to Hofstra North Shore-LIJ, and we’re going to be opening trials at Cohen Children’s Hospital.

ALWAYS SOMETHING NEW: Every month, we meet with new people bringing novel ideas, whether it’s targeted therapy, personalized medicine, new delivery techniques or new imaging technologies. There’s so much innovation in health care. It’s exciting. And places like Feinstein and Hofstra North Shore-LIJ, which are new entities, are really able to take advantage of it.

HEALTH CARE AND THE INNOVATION ECONOMY: I think it’s a huge component, but one that’s been underutilized on Long Island to this point. I was in Philadelphia for awhile, and it’s a huge med-ed city. I think Long Island has a chance to become a med-ed region of innovation. Nursing education is expanding, physical therapy is expanding, the Hofstra North Shore-LIJ Medical School is expanding, so is bioengineering – these can become huge areas for Long Island. There’s a lot of commercialization potential in our field.

FUNDING FEAR: The thing that concerns me most is that physician-scientists are a dying breed. You must have that level of NIH funding that allows research scientists to undertake the efforts necessary to advance health care. Every year that goes by where departments are strapped for cash is a year they won’t have research physicians capable of contributing to health care advances.

FOOTING THE BILL: The Senate is taking up a bill now to expand NIH funding levels. This is critical, not only to pay for new research but to change mentalities – to allow scientists to do science, to allow clinical people to dedicate their lives to not just seeing patient after patient, but to doing the basic research, running the trials. Advancing health care is a huge endeavor, and it starts with increasing government funding for research.

Interview by Gregory Zeller