Internationally-Recognized Thoracic Oncologist Dr. Taofeek K. Owonikoko Named Executive Director of the University of Maryland Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum Comprehensive Cancer Center
October 02, 2023
University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM) Dean Mark T. Gladwin, MD, and University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC) President and CEO Bert W. O’Malley, MD, announced today that Taofeek K. Owonikoko, MD, PhD, a distinguished physician-scientist with a global reputation in thoracic oncology, has been appointed Executive Director of the University of Maryland Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum Comprehensive Cancer Center (UMGCCC). Dr. Owonikoko will join the UMSOM faculty as the Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum Professor in Oncology in the Department of Medicine and Executive Director of the UMSOM Program in Oncology. He will also become Chief of Service at UMMC. As the lead oncologist for both UMMC and UMSOM, he will assume the positions of Senior Associate Dean for Cancer Programs at UMSOM and Associate Vice President for Cancer Programs at the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB).
He will begin his tenure in January 2024, taking over from Kevin J. Cullen, MD, who is stepping down as director after 20 years. Dr. Cullen will continue to teach medical students and treat patients at the cancer center.
Dr. Owonikoko, a thoracic medical oncologist who specializes in treating patients with lung cancer, was selected to take the helm of the National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated comprehensive cancer center at the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC) after an extensive national search by a search committee led by Christine Lau, MD, MBA, the Dr. Robert W. Buxton Professor and Chair of the Department of Surgery at UMSOM and Surgeon-in-Chief at UMMC, and Graeme Woodworth, MD, the Howard M. Eisenberg, MD Distinguished Professor and Chair of Neurosurgery.
Leader in Translational Research
Dr. Owonikoko is board-certified in medical oncology, hematology, and internal medicine. His research has focused on the discovery of pre-clinical biomarkers in small cell lung cancer and other solid tumors and translating promising laboratory findings into groundbreaking clinical trials through collaboration with academic and industry partners.
He is internationally regarded as one of the preeminent physician-scientists in cancer research. He has secured substantial grant funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Department of Defense (DOD), industry partners and private foundations. Presently, Dr. Owonikoko is the recipient of an NIH R01 grant supporting innovative research into new treatments for small cell lung cancer. Notably, his laboratory's fundamental discoveries have paved the way for multiple clinical trials at both institutional and national levels. With a significant h-index of 83 (an author-level metric that measures productivity and citation impact), he has made substantial contributions to the field of oncology, authoring more than 250 original articles in high-impact scientific journals, with over 44,000 citations. Dr. Owonikoko currently serves as an elected board member and treasurer-elect of the prestigious American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), the leading society of oncologists globally.
Extraordinary Track Record of Success
“We are very excited to welcome Dr. Owonikoko to the University of Maryland School of Medicine faculty. He has an extraordinary track record of academic and clinical success and is widely regarded as an innovative leader in translational research and a strategic collaborator,” said UMSOM Dean Gladwin, who is also Executive Vice President for Medical Affairs, UM Baltimore, and the John Z. and Akiko K. Bowers Distinguished Professor at UMSOM. “At the same time, we are deeply grateful to Dr. Cullen for his tireless commitment and leadership in building the UMGCCC into one of the great discovery-based cancer centers in the nation.”
Dr. O’Malley added: “Over the last two decades, Dr. Cullen has led our cancer center to unprecedented growth and left us poised to reach even greater heights in the years to come. We now look forward to leveraging Dr. Owonikoko’s passion for advancing clinical innovations and groundbreaking research to further position Greenebaum among the nation’s top cancer institutions.”
Mohan Suntha, MD, MBA, President and CEO of the University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS), said: “Dr. Owonikoko has earned a stellar reputation as a collaborative and visionary leader with demonstrated ability to substantially grow research and clinical programs of excellence. As an academic cancer center, UMGCCC is a vital resource for cancer patients treated at hospitals within our medical system.” Added Dr. Suntha, who is a radiation oncologist, “I am particularly enthusiastic about the key role Dr. Owonikoko will play in expanding access to state-of-the-art clinical trials.”
Made Cancer Care More Accessible to Patients
Currently, Dr. Owonikoko serves as Chief of the Division of Hematology/Oncology and the Stanley M. Marks Oncology Hematology Associates (OHA) Endowed Chair in Hematology/Oncology Leadership at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. He is also Associate Director for Translational Research and Co-Leader of the Cancer Therapeutics Program at the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center where he has been instrumental in steering translational research, developing innovative therapeutics and expanding clinical care initiatives.
As a key member of the Hillman Cancer Center leadership team, he has helped to make cancer clinical trials more accessible to patients, particularly those in underserved communities, through the large network of outpatient practices, with more than 70 locations in Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, and Western Maryland. Dr. Owonikoko is also committed to fostering the growth and development of the next generation of clinical and research leaders through robust training and mentoring programs.
Previously, he served as Professor and Vice Chair in the Department of Hematology and Medical Oncology at the Emory University School of Medicine and its Winship Cancer Institute.
Dr. Lau, who co-chaired the search committee, said, "The team really worked hard to get the right leader, and we feel strongly that we did. I am excited to support Dr. Owonikoko as we advance cancer care at SOM, UMMC, and across the System."
Dr. Owonikoko said he was "greatly honored and humbled to be selected as the next director of UMGCCC. My gratitude goes to the search committee members and the leadership team across UMB and UMMS for this incredible opportunity. I look forward to joining this vibrant and collegial community and working together to actualize the strategic vision to bring UMGCCC to greater heights by building on the solid foundation laid over the past two decades, through the strong work of my predecessor, Dr. Kevin Cullen, and the entire faculty and staff.”
Dr. Cullen commented about his successor: “Taofeek is a superb clinician-scientist with extensive leadership experience. His recent work at two NCI-designated cancer centers will serve him well as he leads UMGCCC through its next phase of growth. I believe the Greenebaum Comprehensive Cancer will thrive under his direction, and I am delighted that he has chosen to come to Baltimore. As I step down after 20 years, I know the cancer center is in excellent hands.”
Cheryl L. Knott, PhD, co-leader of UMGCCC’s population science program and associate director of community outreach and engagement who served on the search committee, said she appreciates Dr. Owonikoko’s approach and vision for his new position. “The clinical and scientific resume that he brings to the table speaks for itself. However, I also appreciated the humility with which he approached the UMGCCC opportunity, his thoughtful views about diversity, equity and inclusion, and his patient-centered approach,” Dr. Knott said. “This speaks to an alignment with our mission and values at UMGCCC as a comprehensive cancer center with a strong orientation toward the community that we serve.”
An NCI-Designated Comprehensive Cancer Center
The cancer center a joint entity of UMSOM and UMMC is one of only 56 NCI-designated comprehensive cancer centers throughout the country and one of two centers in Maryland. UMGCCC treats just over 3,000 new patients annually with more than 59,000 outpatient visits and 1,100 inpatient admissions each year. The center’s research funding has increased dramatically in recent years, now totaling $122 million. UMGCCC serves as the academic hub for cancer centers at affiliated hospitals within the 11-hospital University of Maryland Medical System.
Patient volume at UMGCCC has also grown significantly in recent years, and construction is underway on a 12-story building the Roslyn and Leonard Stoler Center for Advanced Medicine that will be the new home of the cancer center when it is completed in 2026. The expansion will help UMGCCC meet the growing need for complex cancer care, including cutting-edge cellular immunotherapies and personalized treatments tailored to a patient’s individual cancer and genetic profile.
The cancer center’s reach extends well beyond its walls. Not only do UMGCCC physicians and scientists mentor West Baltimore middle and high school students for potential STEM-related careers through the UMB Cure Scholars Program and other internship programs, UMGCCC also offers patient education and screening initiatives to communities throughout Maryland. These include free cancer screenings through the community-based Baltimore City Cancer Program, with a focus on eliminating disparities in cancer care.
“We are thrilled to have Dr. Owonikoko as our new leader. He is a world class physician-scientist who is ideally suited to carry on the tremendous legacy of Dr. Cullen,” said Michael Greenebaum, President, Greenebaum Enterprises and Vice Chair, UMSOM Board of Visitors, whose parents, Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum, gave the founding gift for the UM Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum Comprehensive Cancer Center (UMGCCC) in 1994. “We are confident that he will take the UM Greenebaum Comprehensive Cancer Center to even greater heights of excellence in both research and patient care. On behalf of our entire family, we want to express our deepest gratitude to Dr. Cullen for his outstanding leadership over the past two decades. We will always have the greatest admiration for him as a close friend and colleague,” he added.
Personal Background and Professional Leadership
Born in Nigeria, Dr. Owonikoko earned his primary medical degree in 1991 from Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria, a PhD degree in Anatomic Pathology from Heinrich Heine University in Duesseldorf, Germany in 2001, and later a Master of Science degree in Clinical Research degree from the James T. Laney School of Graduate Studies at Emory University.
In addition to his leadership role at ASCO, Dr. Owonikoko is affiliated with several professional organizations, including the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), the Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer, and the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer. He has also served as an ad hoc reviewer on NIH and DOD Study Sections for the past 11 years.
He currently is a chartered member for the NCI Clinical Oncology Study Section. Additionally, he is an editorial board member for several highly regarded academic journals, including Cancer, Frontiers in Oncology, Journal of Thoracic Disease and Translational Lung Cancer Research.
He has received numerous awards, including the Michaele C. Christian Oncology Development Lectureship and Award from the NCI in 2020, the Heine Hansen Award for Small Cell Lung Cancer from the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer (IASLC), and the Leadership Development Program award from ASCO.
“I am very excited to bring a servant leadership style to fully harness the depth of scientific expertise at UMB and the sister campuses of the University System of Maryland, to impact the diverse communities served by UMMC and the other components of the UMMS network of hospitals across the state of Maryland,” Dr. Owonikoko added. “I am confident that the outstanding research expertise, excellent patient care and deep commitment to education and the community that define UMGCCC, will help us realize the vision set by the management team to be a leader among its peer NCI-designated comprehensive cancer centers.”