J. William Harbour, M.D., Joins Bascom Palmer Eye Institute to Lead Eye Cancer Program

J. William Harbour, M.D., a pioneering ocular oncologist and retinal surgeon whose genetic discoveries are transforming the diagnosis and treatment of the most common eye cancer, has joined the Miller School faculty as Vice Chairman for Translational Research at Bascom Palmer Eye Institute and director of its Ocular Oncology Service.

Harbour, who founded the Ocular Oncology Service at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, where he was the Paul A. Cibis Distinguished Professor of Ophthalmology & Visual Sciences, is also a member of Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. He begins seeing patients on September 5.

“Bill Harbour is a world authority on ocular melanoma, retinoblastoma and other intraocular tumors and he brings a wealth of clinical expertise and scientific discovery to two of our most noted Centers of Excellence – Bascom Palmer and Sylvester,” said Pascal J. Goldschmidt, M.D., Senior Vice President for Medical Affairs and Dean of the Miller School, and CEO of University of Miami Health System.

Eduardo C. Alfonso, M.D., professor and chairman of Bascom Palmer, said Harbour is the ideal person to lead Bascom Palmer’s newly restructured Ocular Oncology Service and solidify the Institute as a premier research hub and international destination for patients with all types of eye cancer. “His remarkable achievements in the clinic and the lab are opening doors to truly individualized care for patients with eye cancer,” Alfonso said. “He is as dedicated to his patients as he is to creating synergy between patient care and research.”

Stephen D. Nimer, M.D., director of the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, said Harbour’s expertise “will have implications well beyond eye cancer. Bill’s discoveries hold great promise for advancing cancer research that can meaningfully impact the lives of patients with many types of cancer. All of us at Sylvester are looking forward to collaborating with Bill.”

Harbour, who completed a clinical fellowship in vitreoretinal diseases and surgery at Bascom Palmer in 1995, said he was lured back to the nation’s No. 1 ophthalmology program by the opportunity to build a world-class ocular oncology service for patients across the hemisphere, and to work with a group of internationally recognized clinicians who have the expertise to develop diagnostic and prognostic tests, and individualized therapies for all major forms of eye cancer – as he did for the most common and lethal eye cancer in adults.

In 2004, Harbour developed the first and only validated prognostic test for ocular, or uveal melanoma, which metastasizes in about 40 percent of cases, usually to the liver. As The New York Times recently noted in a front-page story, Harbour’s test distinguishes with astonishing accuracy which uveal tumors will spread, and thus ultimately prove fatal, and which will not, a valuable tool that can guide clinical treatment.

“I take care of patients who have cancers on the inside of their eye,” said Harbour, who received The Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology’s prestigious Cogan Award for young researchers in 2005. “And my expertise is complemented by other world-class Bascom Palmer physicians who take care of patients with tumors on the surface of the eye, lid and eye socket. This is an exciting opportunity to consolidate all this expertise into an international destination for eye cancer care of unsurpassed quality. The secret to my success in uveal melanoma was to create synergy between patient care and research, with each one informing the other, and my goal is to use this same model to advance the care of patients with all major forms of eye cancer.”

A native of Dallas who earned his undergraduate degree in biochemistry from Texas A&M University, Harbour gravitated to ophthalmology after developing an interest in cancer biology as a student at Johns Hopkins Medical School, from which he graduated in 1990. Awarded a Howard Hughes Research Fellowship at the NIH’s National Cancer Institute in 1988, he took a leave from medical school to investigate a newly discovered tumor-suppressing gene that happened to be for the rare eye cancer retinoblastoma.

“Until that time, only over-active genes were associated with cancer, but there was growing evidence that there was a class of genes that worked from the opposite mechanism,” Harbor recalled. “If you lost these genes, you would develop cancer. So I was interested in this retinoblastoma gene and whether it was involved in other cancers besides eye cancer.”

It was, and Harbour would be the first author of the 1988 paper in the journal Science that showed the same mutation that causes retinoblastoma plays a role in nearly all cases of a common type of lung cancer.

Upon returning to medical school, he realized he wanted to pursue a surgical career but was equally determined to continue research, and elected to concentrate on both retinal surgery and ocular oncology because “you could do really intricate, challenging surgery” on patients in the morning and still have time for laboratory research in the afternoon.

After pursuing his residency in ophthalmology at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia, he completed a clinical retina fellowship at Bascom Palmer under the mentorship of the world-class Bascom Palmer faculty, including Donald Gass, M.D., a luminary in his field. Then he went to the University of California, San Francisco, for another clinical fellowship in ocular oncology under the tutelage of another luminary, Devron H. Char, M.D.

Landing at Washington University in 1996 as an assistant professor in the Department of Ophthalmology and postdoctoral research fellow in the Division of Molecular Oncology, Harbour began collecting biopsies from ocular melanoma patients, and looking for genetic differences between tumors that spread and those that did not. Eventually he and his research team found a group of genes that were producing more proteins in patients whose tumors metastasized. They zeroed in on a dozen that accurately predicted how well the patients would do.

Those genes are the basis for the only validated and commercially available prognostic test for ocular melanoma, and for a 2004 paper in Science that identified the mutation, known as BAP1, that causes the cancer to metastasize. That same BAP1 mutation, Harbour notes, is associated with other forms of cancer, suggesting that, just like the retinoblastoma gene, BAP1 plays a much broader role in cancer than initially anticipated.

“In addition to taking better care of patients with eye cancers by developing better diagnostic and prognostic tests, and individualized therapy, my goal is to apply the knowledge we gain from these patients to help patients with many other forms of cancer,” he said. “Given the team, the volume of patients, and the variety of cancers we have here at Bascom Palmer and the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, this is the ideal place to fulfill that vision.”

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