Durham County

Duke’s Robert Califf, ex-FDA chief, stepping up to new jobs here and in Silicon Valley

Robert Califf is pictured at a congressional hearing in this Associated Press file photo.
Robert Califf is pictured at a congressional hearing in this Associated Press file photo.

With his stint as commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration complete, cardiologist and longtime Duke University School of Medicine professor Robert Califf is taking what he terms a “dream job” on the Durham campus and with an offshoot of Google.

Officials announced Wednesday the Duke University Health System has named Califf its new vice chancellor of health data science, and that he’ll head a new campus center on integrated health data science. On June 1, he’ll also join the senior management of Verily Life Sciences, an Alphabet company formerly known as Google Life Sciences.

Eventually, he’ll split his time 50-50 between the organizations, spending two weeks a month in California and two weeks in Durham.

In both, the goal is to help data analysts and health professionals figure out how to apply the results of big-data number-crunching to on-the-ground medical treatment, Califf said.

“There’s very little I can contribute to the brilliance of engineers in Silicon Valley, but they need help translating that knowledge so regular people in places like the Southeast can improve their health,” he said. “I was excited that the Duke leadership really embraced that mission with this new center. It’s not just about data analytics; it’s about actionable data analytics and putting systems in place that do lead to better health outcomes.”

Health system officials said Califf will “maintain an appointment” with the Duke Clinical Research Institute, which spearheads trials of new drugs and medical treatments. Califf, meanwhile, said he’s also received an adjunct-faculty appointment from Stanford University’s medical school.

National media reports, including one Tuesday from CNBC, had linked Califf to a joint appointment from Verily and Stanford, one of the handful of universities in the country with a balance sheet and academic reputation that exceeds Duke’s.

But while a move to the Palo Alto university “was a consideration, assuming Stanford would make an offer,” a lifetime of ties to Duke and Durham combined to render that speculation “an incorrect report,” Califf said. He noted he first came here as an undergraduate in 1969 and has been on the Duke faculty since the early 1980s.

Still, Duke School of Medicine officials left no doubt they were happy to have retained Califf following his 11-month stint at the head of the Food and Drug Administration. He served in the final year of former President Barack Obama’s administration and stepped down on Jan. 20.

“I’m counting this as my first success as dean,” quipped Mary Klotman, professor and, as of this summer, the incoming dean of the Duke School of Medicine.

The Verily option owes much to Califf’s ties to its CEO, Andy Conrad, which go back to 2004. The company is involved in an assortment of “precision medicine” projects, notably Project Baseline, a panel-study collaboration between it, Duke and Stanford that’s supposed to gather health data from 10,000 participants over four years.

At Duke, meanwhile, Provost Sally Kornbluth and other campus leaders are pushing a “quantitative initiative” to expand the university’s big-data talent base. Califf wants the health-data center he’ll lead at Duke to function as a “sort of nexus” to promote collaborations between faculty working in different fields that can ultimately help improve the practice of medicine.

“I see my job at Duke as helping everybody else succeed,” he said. “There’s tremendous excitement about [the prospects of] applying both the quantitative and social sciences to all this health information. You might think of the center as a matchmaker.”

Klotman said the hope is that it can focus on a set of questions “that will impact health care at our institution as well as nationally,” for example searching clinical data for patterns in hospital re-admissions to see if there are ways to prevent them.

Califf and Duke officials are also hoping the joint appointment helps boost the university’s institutional ties to Silicon Valley. All of its big corporate players “are making investments in health information,” and “we want to link our faculty to the environment out there,” Califf said.

“Having Rob be the connector is ideal for us,” Klotman said. “He can articulate a vision and everybody starts understanding it. He’s got this incredible grasp on where we want to go. The other great thing about Rob is he connects very well to people on the ground. He’s a visionary leader, and he can also get teams to work together.”

Califf stressed, though, that while seeing patterns in data is one thing, turning it into on-the-ground health improvements is another and very possibly the far-more-difficult task.

While the Triangle is home to probably the country’s “second largest aggregation of statisticians outside Washington,” North Carolina is also “the epicenter of bad health outcomes,” he said, adding he suspects that “in aggregate, we haven’t taken full advantage” of the talent based here.

The challenge can’t be underestimated, he added.

Though “there’s no longer a financial digital divide in access to the Internet because everyone has a cell phone regardless of income,” improved health is a function of far more than mere knowledge or of what happens in institutional settings.

“Probably the home is a bigger part of health outcomes,” Califf said. “I’m watching a man walk into the Laundromat smoking a cigarette. I’m sure he knows better than that, but he probably needs help to become un-addicted.”

Califf’s continued presence at Duke means the university will have two former FDA commissioners on its faculty. The other is Mark McClellan, a former Stanford professor, physician and economist who’s now director of Duke’s Margolis Center for Health Policy. He headed the FDA for two years under former President George W. Bush.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg