The chairman of the President's Cancer Panel, venerable Howard University surgeon LaSalle Leffall, spent his last few days of summer in Helsinki, Finland. But he wasn't feasting on fish and frolicking through fjords.
Leffall, 80, attended an intense, three-day brainstorming session tackling cancer and other problems with a unique approach called "strategic design," in which experts from a variety of disciplines dissect the "architecture" of complex issues and try to develop broad solutions.
"It went beyond the physiology of cancer to systemic problems," such as how exercise and nutrition relate to the disease, Leffall said.
The Sept. 1-3 session was organized by the Helsinki Design Lab, a project launched in 2008 by the Finnish Innovation Fund to put strategic design to work on global problems like climate change and education. This month's event brought together more than 120 participants, including Leffall, former Rep. Dick Swett, D-N.H., and former Veterans Affairs Secretary James Peake.
The design lab staff will issue a report on the project this fall, and Leffall plans to present it to the President's Cancer Panel for use in its role advising the White House on the National Cancer Program. The report also could be helpful for Congress as it deliberates on the best use of public funds for cancer research, prevention and treatment, Leffall said.
Regardless of how Congress decides where money should be spent on cancer, it definitely needs to consider an increase in research funds, said Leffall, a member of the Cancer Panel since he was appointed by former President George W. Bush in 2002.
He noted that when Bush's sister Robin died of leukemia in 1953 at the age of 3, the disease was nearly always fatal for children. Today, childhood leukemia has a cure rate of between 70 percent and 80 percent, he said. "That is all due to research," he said.
Leffall is preparing to leave the Cancer Panel as soon as President Obama appoints new members. Candidates for the three panel positions went to the White House for vetting last week, he said.
But even as he enters his ninth decade, Leffall said he has no plans to slow down in his full-time position on the faculty of the Howard University College of Medicine, where he has been since 1962. Leffall stopped performing surgeries about four years ago, but his life's work of helping patients, both through treatment and by teaching medical students, "has brought me great joy," he said. "I love it so much. I don't plan to go anywhere."
This article appears in the September 18, 2010, edition of NJ Daily.