Hank Kaplan, M.D., helms an initiative at Swedish that will change our understanding of cancer and benefit patients for generations to come

Portrait of Hank Kaplan, M.D., smiling in his laboratory

[6 minute read]

In this article: 

  • Hank Kaplan, M.D., will lead the Initiative for the Molecular and Genomic Evaluation of Cancer at the Paul G. Allen Research Center at Swedish Cancer Institute.

  • Swedish's one-of-a-kind breast cancer database will play a central role in the work of the center. 

  • The center will drive new ways of using data and information to develop personalized treatments for patients with cancer.  

For hundreds of patients with cancer, the name Hank Kaplan, M.D., is synonymous with care. Dr. Kaplan’s career at Swedish has spanned more than four decades and distinguished him as a compassionate advocate and revolutionary clinician for patients with breast cancer. Though Dr. Kaplan is retired from clinical care, he continues to bring his vast knowledge to Swedish’s research around cancer treatment, detection and prevention.

Among his many accomplishments is his partnership in the development of the Swedish Breast Cancer Database, a one-of-a-kind resource containing information about thousands of patients with breast cancer through treatment and survivorship.

Originally trained in organic chemistry, Dr. Kaplan is as committed to hope as he is to the development of new cancer treatment options. Dr. Kaplan brings to his work finely honed expertise, boundless enthusiasm for ideas and a steadfast loyalty to his patients and their families as they move through what may be a life-altering experience of cancer.

For our series on the leadership team behind the Paul G. Allen Research Center at Swedish Cancer Institute, Dr. Kaplan spoke to us on a bone-chillingly cold winter day from his home office on Mercer Island. With his golden retriever snoozing lazily behind him, a relaxed and engaging Dr. Kaplan shared with us his thoughts on the mission of the center, a little about his work leading the center’s Initiative for Molecular and Genomic Evaluation of Cancer and how the center’s approach will change the future for patients with cancer.

Q: Can you tell us what the mission is of the Paul G. Allen Research Center at Swedish Cancer Institute and about the center’s foundational tenets?

A: Mr. Allen’s gift is helping build a center where our central goal is to ease the journey of patients with cancer as they go through the disease. We want to improve the experience of every cancer patient by leading advances in cancer prevention, detection and treatment. We also want to provide an optimal environment for conducting innovative original research and clinical trials, where the results have a direct benefit to patients with cancer. We’ll do innovative things that might be high-risk but could really move the needle. We’ll also do things that wouldn't necessarily be able to get funding through traditional sources such as government grants or pharmaceutical industry funding. With the center, we are reimagining how we do many things here at Swedish, including working with data and specimens for clinical studies, but we’re also adhering to the mission that has always driven us at Swedish: to focus on coming up with better test procedures and therapies that lead to better diagnosis and treatment outcomes for patients.

Q: Tell us about the significance of Mr. Allen’s gift to the broader world of cancer research and Swedish’s decision to name the center after Mr. Allen.

A: I knew Paul. He was a very unique individual. He appreciated the unique qualities in all of us. Inspired by that, and his general love of big ideas and tackling tough problems, we’re asking big questions like: What's unique about that individual patient and that person’s tumor? And how can we take advantage of those things when treating them?

We are positioning ourselves to look at each individual patient and then develop the tools to keep pushing the envelope in their treatment. We’re also bringing more things into the clinical sphere out of the lab and willing to take some leaps, take some chances and try some things that might or might not work. This all reflects Paul because he believed in coming up with new ideas and testing them. He was always willing to try something that had a high risk of failure in order to make innovative leaps of progress. Paul's generous bequest allows investigators the freedom to think in wholly new ways and try new ideas. And that’s where we make advancements. We can use data to come up with a proposal, do a pilot study about a particular question and see whether it looks promising. Then if it does, we can go forward with a bigger study. That's how I connect the dots: Paul believed in big, new ideas and creating the space for them to go forward.

Courtesy Allen Institute/Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group

Q: What do you want patients to know about the Initiative for Molecular and Genomic Evaluation of Cancer and its importance on the trajectory of cancer research?

A: I've done clinical research for years based on outcomes analysis and things like that, using our breast cancer database. In the last few years, I've gotten very interested in genomics and metabolism. We're finding out now we need to know what's going on at the genetic and molecular level of both the cancer and the patient’s response to the cancer to give them the best treatment and to make advances.

My hope for IMGEC is that we will be doing projects that will move along those lines. For example, we will be looking at how tumors evolve over time; we know that there are certain mutations that occur in tumors and they're different for different tumors. We know that mutations increase in frequency the longer one has cancer, and we also know that some of the changes that occur in cancer as time goes on aren't because of gene mutations but because genes get turned on and off. They may be perfectly normal genes, but how much they function changes. We hope to develop studies that will look at that as well.

There are three pillars at the center, and they’re all complementary. In addition to IMGEC, Dr. Kelly Paulson will be leading the Center for Immuno-oncology, which will look specifically at immunotherapies. There are genetic markers that show us how the immune system behaves. This work will help us develop therapies that harness a patient’s own immune system to treat cancer. Dr. Charles Drescher’s pillar, the Initiative for Cancer Prevention and Early Detection, is going to be looking at how we identify people at high risk and how we monitor them. Well, if we can develop these kinds of things to look at what may predict risk, that will be helpful to that pillar. All three pillars will interact with each other, but each will have a particular focus.



Q: Tell us about your work on the Swedish Breast Cancer Database and what it has meant for patients with breast cancer. How will this learning be applied to other types of cancers?

A: We've been collecting and organizing data in this breast cancer database for about 30 years. It’s extremely detailed — more than most [cancer] databases. We have utilized it for many, many studies, including looking at benefits of mammography, treatment outcomes and characteristics of different kinds of tumors. We use it for data mining, meaning patients weren't necessarily on a specific clinical trial, but we can go back and find what parameters are important for [a particular area of research or study].

We've produced many studies from that, but going forward, we expect to additionally utilize the database in a little bit different way to identify patients who are appropriate for the kinds of clinical studies we’ll be launching at the center.

We can use the database as we put in all the genomic characteristics of the patients and their tumors to identify candidates for new, targeted drugs as they become available. For example, when there is a new drug, we can say ‘Hey, this will target anybody who's got x mutation.’ And we'll be able to look in the database for all current patients who have x mutation and can participate in clinical trials. That's a huge advantage for the patient because they can find out if they’re eligible for a potentially lifesaving treatment and because, hopefully, we can expand new treatments to even more patients by bringing more clinical trials to the center and Swedish.

We're also going to hire the best informatics people and collaborate with outside informatics experts. This is a central part of our work because research is about translating information from clinical trials to strategies and treatments that meet real patient needs. Our informatics staff will play a vital role in that process. It’ll also benefit cancer research more widely because the two holy grails right now in medical data analysis are standardization and automation. We want to advance data transfer in general and to bring in all these new kinds of information in an automated fashion so it's more easily usable and interpretable. That's very definitely a major part of the work at IMGEC.

Q. Why is it vital to have a state-of-the-art laboratory for this work? How does this aid advancements in treating cancer?

A: My background is in organic chemistry and clinical pharmacology, and when I was still a university full-time academic, I had a biochemistry lab. Since I've been at Swedish, most of the research I've done has been either running clinical trials or doing data mining. The laboratory parts of my research have involved collaborating with outside labs.

But whether you are doing sophisticated lab work on-site or collaborating with outside labs to really make progress going forward, you need a number of core laboratory capabilities. Swedish has wrestled with this question. We are a clinically oriented bunch. Our niche is offering leading-edge clinical research to our patients and making clinical advances, as well as taking superb clinical care of our patients.

So, when we talk about our core lab, we're talking about sophisticated capabilities. In addition to our informatics core, we will have a core lab to focus primarily on improving our ability to process specimens, which can be very different from study to study, depending on what you’re trying to measure. You need to be able to obtain samples, and you need to be able to process them quickly. Some of them can be at room temperature, some of them need to be frozen to minus 80 degrees, some need to be centrifuged, etc.

The core lab will allow us to do more lab studies on site and to more actively collaborate with others who have pertinent laboratory capabilities that we do not have. We’ll be able to use our data to come up with a suitable patient population, get the tissue and blood samples, process them appropriately at Swedish and share them with other labs for collaborative research.

Q: What makes Swedish the right home for the center and this innovative approach to cancer research?

A: Swedish is the right home because our work is patient-centered and clinically oriented. We are nimble and flexible enough to do both. We see a lot of patients, so we can gather large amounts of vital data, and we have people who are committed to doing the best work possible for our patients.

Swedish is also the right home for the center because we have brilliant people who are truly committed to patient care and have the capabilities to do research and collaborate with other very smart people who are doing leading-edge research focused on understanding and treating cancer and improving the lives of our patients and their families.

How you can help

Research at this scale requires a significant investment in technology, personnel and laboratory resources. Your philanthropic support will unlock the secrets of cancer’s evolution and how patients respond to treatments by building a team of experts in research and data collection. Learn more and give today at www.swedishfoundation.org/PaulGAllenResearchCenter.

Find a doctor

If you have questions about cancer research, contact the Swedish Cancer Institute. We can accommodate both in-person and virtual visits.

Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult a doctor virtually, you have options. Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.

Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.

Additional resources

Bequest from the late Paul G. Allen will fund research that will change cancer care and treatment

Breast cancer: New research. New therapies. New hope. 

Lessons from an Employee Cancer Survivor 

Cancer Survivorship

Coping with Cancer: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy 

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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About the Author

The Swedish Cancer Team is committed to bringing you the most up-to-date insights about treatments, prevention, care and support available. We know cancer diagnoses strain you both mentally and physically, and we hope to provide a small piece of hope to you or your loved ones who are fighting the cancer battle with useful and clinically-backed advice.

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