Bioscience investments help recruit new UConn Health Center chief

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s $864 million plan to expand and renovate the UConn Health Center netted university President Susan Herbst more than a few notes from other university leaders who were shocked that any state would invest so much in an academic medical center in this economic climate.

This week, it helped UConn land a new leader.

Dr. Frank M. Torti, who was named medical school dean and vice president for health affairs Friday, is an oncologist who ran a comprehensive cancer center and held top roles at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Asked what interested him in the UConn job, Torti, who has spent nearly all of his career at Stanford and Wake Forest universities, pointed to the governor.

“First of all, it was at its core Gov. Malloy’s vision for bioscience that absolutely engaged me,” Torti said, referring to the goal of building a bioscience industry to spur economic development. “It’s absolutely visionary, and it’s something that I buy into.”

“Where else right now in health care has this potential excitement and opportunity?” he added. “I can’t think of any place.”

Torti serves as vice president of strategic programs at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C., and previously led the university’s Comprehensive Cancer Center and department of cancer biology. He took a leave in 2008 to work as chief scientist at the FDA, where he also briefly served as acting commissioner.

At UConn, Torti will be charged with leading an academic medical center in the midst of a massive renovation and expansion project aimed at overcoming years of neglect while positioning the area as a leader in bioscience. He will lead a faculty seeking stability after several rocky years. And he’ll oversee a new relationship with The Jackson Laboratory, a Maine-based genetics research firm that is building an institute for personalized medicine on the health center’s Farmington campus.

Torti also cited Herbst “and her energy” as a reason for him to come to Connecticut. “She is a dynamo and already a friend,” he said during a telephone interview from North Carolina Friday morning . “This just feels like the right mix.”

Herbst described Torti as a “brilliant researcher, physician and teacher” who could make UConn into a premier health care institution.

“Dr. Torti understands the landscape of drug and device development and the promise of personalized medicine like few others in this country,” she said in a statement. “He is the right person at the right time for UConn and the state of Connecticut.”

Malloy, who met with Torti as part of the search, said Torti has “a gigantic intellect and proven track record of research and managing large organizations.”

“He is a great scientist and researcher and physician, and has moved through the federal complex, which as we try to grow our research footprint ultimately will be very beneficial to the institution,” Malloy said.

Torti will receive a base salary of $780,000 a year and is eligible to receive a $150,000 performance incentive at the end of his first year.

His wife, Suzy V. Torti, will also join the health center as a professor in the department of molecular, microbial and structural biology, and in the Center for Molecular Medicine. She is currently a tenured professor of biochemistry at Wake Forest’s medical school.

To cure cancer

Although his career has included research, patient care, administration and government work, Torti said it’s all been rooted in one goal.

“My interests have always been simple,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to cure cancer. Period.”

Both his parents died of the disease. And Torti said he sees it as a solvable problem.

“There’s a long way to go, don’t misunderstand me, but you can see the beginnings of that in the wonderful set of new drugs that are coming on the market that are way too expensive but are effective,” he said, adding that he hopes the health center will be involved in developing the next generation of compounds that can change care for cancer and other diseases.

Torti went to work at Wake Forest’s cancer program at a time when its designation by the National Cancer Institute as a comprehensive cancer center was in jeopardy, said Dr. Steven A. Akman, a professor of cancer biology at Wake Forest. Cancer centers that are too diffuse and don’t have clear priorities don’t succeed, Akman said, and Torti steered Wake Forest’s program in a different direction.

“When he came here he said, ‘Look, we can’t be all things. Here are the areas that we’re going to emphasize and we’re going to build our strengths to those specific areas,'” Akman said.

Akman called Torti an outstanding clinician, scientist and administrator.

“He really built this cancer center,” Akman said. “He understands what it takes to succeed in terms of personnel and hiring and supporting good personnel. He understands what it takes in terms of infrastructure. He understands the prioritization. He’s a good listener.”

Torti, a Northvale, N.J., native, received medical and public health degrees from Harvard. He completed an oncology fellowship at Stanford, then joined the faculty.

It was there that he met Dr. Edison Liu, a fellow oncologist, who was recently named president and CEO of The Jackson Laboratory, UConn’s new partner. Torti said they know each other well; the two also crossed paths when both worked at universities in North Carolina.

Malloy often cites North Carolina’s research triangle, a cluster of scientific research anchored by universities, as a model for what he hopes Connecticut’s investment in bioscience will achieve. From his experience at a university on the outskirts of the research triangle, Torti said building a similar model requires vision, the piece that’s often most in short supply. Malloy has it, he said.

Building a research triangle-type cluster also requires a catalyst, Torti said, “a piece to get it started where other things can aggregate around it. That’s what the Jackson Labs is.” As part of the health center’s renovation and expansion, known as Bioscience Connecticut, the state is also building more incubator space for small companies that develop devices and drugs.

Torti said he hopes his FDA experience will help him guide small companies to get their products to market, which often presents a stumbling block.

“So many small companies fail not because they don’t have a good product,” he said. “They do have a good product, but they don’t understand the regulatory pathway to getting that approved and on the market.”

Rocky years at the health center

The health center that Torti will take over May 1 is in a considerably different position than it was a year ago. Back then, it was reeling from the defeat of yet another plan for financial stability after the university failed to win a federal grant needed for a renovation plan to go forward.

UConn’s John Dempsey Hospital has long been considered too small and outdated to be financially viable, and proposals to replace or renovate it were either considered politically or financially infeasible. One plan, to build a new, larger hospital, drew opposition from other area hospitals. Another, which called for merging Dempsey with Hartford Hospital, was cited as a key reason faculty voted to unionize. Officials said the uncertainty over the health center’s future made it hard to recruit and retain faculty.

Malloy’s plan for the health center was costlier and more ambitious than any of the previous proposals. Despite concerns from some lawmakers about the cost and lack of time for examination, it passed the legislature last spring, three weeks after Malloy proposed it.

“In a down environment, where most other states are pulling back their support, we moved solidly into bolstering that support and expanding dramatically our research capacity,” Malloy said Friday. “And it’s quite clear that a number of people are finding that to be attractive, whether it’s to manage the institution or to be associated as a faculty member at one of the medical programs or to come to the campus as a researcher. People are reaching out to us about moving their research operations to Connecticut.”

Between Bioscience Connecticut, Jackson Lab and ongoing changes in health care, the health center is going through significant changes, noted Bruce Mayer, a research biologist and president of the health center’s faculty union.

“I think somebody with a lot of high-level experience in a number of those areas is really important,” said Mayer, who was part of the search committee that selected Torti.

Mayer said faculty members are looking for someone to stabilize things at the health center and “rally the troops.” The health center, which includes Dempsey Hospital, research labs and UConn’s medical and dental schools, has had interim leadership since the previous medical school dean and vice president for health affairs, Dr. Cato T. Laurencin, stepped down last summer.

“I’m sure there are going to be bumps in the road, but everybody, I think, at the health center is really eager to rally behind someone and take advantage of these opportunities now,” Mayer said. “It’s been a rocky few years, and so I think this comes as a relief in a sense.”