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Dina Michels is vice president and general counsel of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, based in Alexandria, Va.
Can you tell us a little bit about the purpose and history of the organization? In a nutshell, ASCO is the world’s leading professional society representing physicians who treat people with cancer. ASCO was founded over 40 years ago and now has more than 20,000 members involved in cancer treatment and clinical cancer research. The society has a multifaceted mission, but I can say that our mission centers on improving cancer care and prevention and enhancing the education of physicians and other cancer professionals. We are also involved with public policy issues, such as making sure there is continued funding for cancer-care research. ASCO’s mission is carried out through a range of programs and services. For one thing, we publish a peer-reviewed journal, the Journal of Clinical Oncology. We also hold an annual scientific meeting, attended by almost 30,000 people, which is really the premier meeting for cancer professionals. It’s really just amazing to see all the physicians coming together from around the world and to hear about progress in the science. The conference lasts five days; it really is an exciting time. ASCO also has an affiliate, the ASCO Foundation, which gives out research and career-development grants to young researchers in the field of oncology. ASCO really wants to foster the careers of young oncologists, to help them design and carry out important clinical research. The sense is that through clinical research, so many scientific developments can be translated into care for patients. It’s “bringing research to the bedside,” as they say.
Does the organization provide advice? ASCO doesn’t provide medical advice. ASCO does develop, through volunteer oncologists, clinical-practice guidelines for cancer treatment. And physicians do consult them. ASCO also has a separate Web site for patients and families, called People Living With Cancer, that has information and resources about different kinds of cancer and the latest developments — all reviewed by oncologists. It’s a priority for ASCO that health information is not just available to physicians but to patients. Plwc.org is a reliable source of information reflecting the latest science and research.
The organization didn’t have an in-house general counsel before you were appointed in May. How did you end up in the position? ASCO had reached the point where it made sense to have a general counsel in house, full time. It was a function of the size and maturity of the organization. And I had been working closely with the board and the senior leadership, as the outside general counsel, while I was with Ropes & Gray. What drew me to the job was the chance to come to an organization that is mission-driven. Since I had worked with ASCO for almost three years, I knew that it was a great group of people.
What’s your background? I’ve been a health care lawyer for 19 years, since I graduated from Georgetown University Law Center. Before joining ASCO, six weeks ago, I was a partner with Ropes & Gray and a member of the firm’s health care practice group. I focused on representing hospitals and academic medical centers in transactions and regulatory matters. I had the chance to handle the legal side of some major strategic transactions, like the sale of a hospital at the University of Pennsylvania and the spinoff of the George Washington University faculty medical practice. I’ve also worked with a range of health care providers and manufacturers, counseling them on health care privacy and compliance.
Is there anyone else in your legal department? We do have one other attorney, a young attorney with a master’s degree in bioethics, who serves as ethics compliance manager for the society.
What would you say are the big legal issues? Some really interesting intellectual property issues come out of ASCO’s role as a publisher of all different kinds of scientific and educational materials. We also have some sophisticated Web-based tools to support quality care in oncology. IP issues arise in protecting our assets and our trademarks but also in looking for ways to license our intellectual property to make the know-how that ASCO has developed even more widely available.
What are some of the best parts of the job? One thing that’s been fun for me: We’re in the process of securing new office space for ASCO headquarters, so I’m learning about real estate law. In fact, I’d say that’s one of the best parts of the job — the chance to practice different kinds of law and see a range of questions every day. For example, a host of legal issues arise out of the challenges of organizing the enormous ASCO annual meeting, which involves contracting for convention space, blocks of hotel rooms, and shuttle buses. Then we receive thousands of abstracts of research findings, all reviewed and ranked. There are permissions and intellectual property issues, and the media is paying close attention, as well. ASCO is a leader in advocacy and legal issues pertaining to oncology. There’s an effort to secure the best funding for clinical trials and get even greater participation in clinical trials. We’re always working with the government to maximize public funding and working with cancer centers to make sure that patients who have cancer can find a clinical trial that will offer some hope in their area. I also help ASCO collaborate [with] other organizations in policy efforts. There is also a lot to learn in the area of survivorship, now that significant progress has been made in detecting and treating cancer. There is a growing population of people who are cancer survivors, living with and through that disease. In fact, nearly 10 million people have a history of cancer in this country. We need to know more about what kind of long-term side effects there are and what screening they should have going forward. There’s an opportunity to understand and address better the needs of cancer survivors.
What are the most difficult challenges in the job? I’m not sure I can answer that yet. I can say that it’s a challenge to learn all the facets of a growing, dynamic, high-energy organization. The board of directors is a stellar group of volunteers who have a far-reaching vision. Beyond that, it’s just the learning curve of a brand-new job. In private practice the focus was broader — I had many clients. Here, I have only one client with one mission, to take care of the best way I can.
What outside counsel do you use? Ropes & Gray is our primary outside counsel. The firm handles legal support on a range of issues, from health policy to intellectual property to employment and HR issues.
How big is the organization? We have about 200 employees.
And what do you do in your spare time? My number-one priority is spending time with my husband, Peter Engel, and our two teenagers, Ruth and Sam. My daughter is going to be a junior in high school, and my son will be a freshman. Our family loves to travel; we just got back from a two-week trip in Costa Rica. When I’m at home I do enjoy cooking and gardening.
Read any good books lately? One that I’ve just finished is nonfiction, the new memoir by Julia Child with Alex Prud’Homme, My Life in France. It was fun to read about her years in Paris after World War II, where she fell in love with French cooking. But really what struck me was the close relationship between Julia Child and her husband, and also her strong bond with her women friends in Paris. In the end I found the book to be more about relationships than about food.

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