Birrer 275x275Michael Birrer, an expert in gynecologic cancers, is the new leader of the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center.Michael Birrer, M.D., Ph.D., did not originally consider entering the field of gynecologic oncology. It was instead an obligatory appointment to serve on a board that changed the trajectory of his career. “I initially started out in 1988 as an investigator in lung cancer at the National Cancer Institute’s Center for Cancer Research,” explains Birrer. “Since I was new faculty, I had to sit on the gynecologic oncology tumor board. It was a set of tumors I had little experience with at the time, but I enjoyed learning about everything involving these tumors. It was absolutely fascinating.”

That fascination has been a constant theme throughout his almost 30-year career and has led him to his new position as director of the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center. “What I find exciting about the role is it allows me to help a greater number of patients suffering from cancer,” says Birrer, a trailblazer in the early detection and treatment of gynecologic cancers.

Birrer’s lab has a long history of determining the genomic characteristics of ovarian, cervical, and endometrial cancers, and using that data to form the basis for early detection assays, prevention strategies, and novel therapies. His research interests include the molecular origins of gynecologic cancers, as well as the identifications and characterization of aberrations in oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes in these cancers.

Research is not the only field where Birrer excels. He has held multiple leadership positions, including as the director of Gynecologic Medical Oncology and the Gynecologic Cancer Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Gillette Center since 2008. During this time, he was also a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and served as the leader of the Dana Farber/Harvard Cancer Center program in gynecologic cancers. Birrer credits his hybrid research/leadership experience for preparing him for his directorship role at the Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Michael Birrer LRBirrer’s lab has a long history of determining the genomic characteristics of ovarian, cervical, and endometrial cancers.“I have had experience in both laboratory and clinical research, but I’ve also held leadership positions that have prepared me for my new role,” says Birrer, who succeeds retiring director Edward Partridge, M.D.

Selwyn Vickers, M.D., FACS, senior vice president for medicine and dean of the School of Medicine, couldn’t agree more. “Mike Birrer is an outstanding physician-scientist who balances a vision of transformation and leadership,” says Vickers. “He understands drivers for excellence in clinical care and has a vision for growing precision medicine in cancer care, as well as a well-established commitment to fundamental scientific discovery.”

Birrer’s vision for the Comprehensive Cancer Center also incorporates expanding the reach of the center to create outpatient clinics in areas like Mississippi, western Georgia, the panhandle of Florida, and Arkansas. “These are areas where the quality and type of outstanding cancer care that UAB is known for would be established, and then populations of people in these areas who may never see a clinical trial would have access to these terrific drugs,” says Birrer, who earned his doctoral degree in microbiology and immunology and medical degree at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. “It would expand the scope of the Cancer Center, but more importantly it would better cover the Deep South, where we have a lot of underserved patients.”

Birrer also notes it is important to have a standalone clinical care facility for the Comprehensive Cancer Center. “UAB needs an outpatient clinic building where patients can point to it and say, ‘That is my cancer center,’” he says. “Right now we have great cancer care, but it is scattered all over the place.”

Although Birrer wants to create a standalone clinical care facility for the center, he says he is extremely fortunate to take the reins of one of the first National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer centers within the U.S. that has been continuously funded for more than 40 years.

“It is easy to impart a vision when you’re starting with something that is spectacular like the Comprehensive Cancer Center,” Birrer says. “UAB is a first-rate institution with a Comprehensive Cancer Center that is one of the best in the nation, and it is a great honor for me to lead such a prestigious cancer center.”

By Emily Henagan and Kendra Carter