newsmaker: Ronald Morton, MD
The Star-Ledger, The New York Times, WABC-TV Metro Radio, CNN
by Maryann B. Brinley
Ronald Morton, MD, was standing on the floor of the old Houston Astrodome before the start of an Astros baseball game and star pitcher Randy Johnson was warming up. Morton, the new director of urologic oncology at The Cancer Institute of New Jersey (CINJ) was receiving an award and in the media spotlight for his contributions to raising community awareness about prostate cancer. Two things about that day stand out for him now: the rapt attention on the ball player of both his sons (ages 15 and 12 now) and the sound of speed. Timing, of course, is everything in sports as well as medicine.
Back then, Morton was director of Baylor College of Medicine's prostate cancer center laboratories. "This was a few years ago when Randy Johnson spent a half year in Texas and my kids are huge baseball fans. They were so excited that they hardly focused on me getting the award." There on the field and so close you could hear the ball in motion, Morton also recalls that "it sounded like a shotgun."
That well-worn phrase - time is of the essence - is a line all physicians know only too well because most doctors spend their lives beating the clock personally as well as professionally. A professor of surgery at UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School (RWJMS), Morton himself is at his desk by 6:30 AM heading into a day that is "only over when the work is done." Yet for this doctor, the larger impact of timing on prostate cancer underscores his personal sense of mission, his clinical practice and his research on biosensors for early detection and treatment. In the not too distant future, men will not need to wait weeks for the results of prostate cancer screening tests - a delay that could be life threatening. Rapid, inexpensive biosensors, like the one Morton is pursuing with a grant from the National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Diseases, may offer almost instantaneous feedback to men at risk.
"From my standpoint, there are many factors that make prostate cancer a fascinating disease to study. Although my prostate cancer research interests are quite broad, I am particularly interested in the observation that African American men seem to have a higher incidence and mortality rate." The numbers from the CDC and the National Center for Health Statistics for prostate cancer death rates (1990-2000) put black men at the top of statistical charts with white men not even a close second. Prostate cancer is the second highest cause of cancer death for all American men. "Why African American men should be singled out is not entirely clear and is probably some combination of biological and socioeconomic factors. They tend to be diagnosed at a later stage of the disease, which contributes to their poor outcomes." When they do take part in screening events which include PSA (prostate-specific antigen) sampling, the wait for answers can be costly. "The idea behind the biosensor project is that you are more apt to act on information if you are presented with it right there. A doctor can say, 'You need to see someone for treatment now, not later.'"
After more than two decades, Morton is back in New Jersey where he grew up, the state with "the highest incidence of prostate cancer in the country." Black men are two and a half times more likely to die of this cancer than white men. Morton was in the news recently for his role in a $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study New Jersey's disparities in cancer rates among blacks, Latinos and other populations. "There is a need for my specialty here and I'm proud to be able to return and make a contribution." It also helps that his parents - "my biggest supporters" - are still here.
Morton grew up in Montclair and went off to Johns Hopkins where he spent 17 years in total: as an undergraduate, a medical student, a resident and eventually in a urological oncology fellowship. A career in general surgery tempted him for awhile. "It wasn't until I was a fourth year medical student that I became interested in this specialty," he says. That's when he met chief resident Herb Lepor, MD, at Johns Hopkins, who is now a well-respected urologist at New York University Hospital.
"Lepor said, 'Take a closer look,'" Morton recalls. "I did and was absolutely convinced then that this is what I wanted to do with my life. Treatment decisions for prostate cancer are such a challenge and this is an exciting time because so many things are getting done in urology as well as here at the University." William N. Hait, MD, PhD, CINJ director, is also one of the reasons Morton is here. "Hait is fantastic."
Since his arrival on the New Brunswick campus last summer, Morton has been sharing ideas with scientists at Rutgers to move his PSA biosensor design forward. In the past 10 years, this researcher has received nearly $7 million from the NIH and signs of progress in biosensor technology are everywhere now and certainly in his favor.
Biosensors - a medical mix of engineering and biological science expertise - are on the fast track of the revolution in healthcare because of their ability to detect, record and transmit information about physiological, chemical or biological changes quickly. He admits that in the past, this project, like all research, has had "its ups and downs. This was one of the reasons I came here and I am now beginning to believe that we just may produce something."
Morton's timing couldn't be more perfect and in recent months, his expertise on the link between cancer and race has appeared in The New York Times, The Star-Ledger, The Daily Record, Associated Press stories, WABC-TV, WMBC-TV, NY1-TV, as well as Metro Radio and CNN Radio Espanola.
On a personal note, he laughs about another example of serendipitous timing and life having a way of coming around full circle. "I went to the Rand School in Montclair for kindergarten. I'm 46 and just figured out that the administrator of our urology department, Noreen Morris, was in that class with me," he says. "We couldn't believe it."