Breakfast with the Eagle: Dr. Jeffrey S. Ross discusses his work over eggs

LENOX — Dr. Jeffrey S. Ross had just finished breakfast at Haven Cafe and Bakery when he flashed a Marriott Rewards Lifetime Platinum Elite card.

"I don't know if I'm embarrassed or proud of this," Ross said.

While some of the 72-year-old Lenox resident's colleagues are starting to retire, Ross continues to share his expertise in molecular diagnostics around the world, having now amassed the more than 750 nights and two million points required to receive the hotel firm's top lifetime reward. His most recent trips pertain to his part-time roles in academia and his full-time position as the medical director of Foundation Medicine Inc. The Cambridge, Mass.-based firm made headlines on Nov. 30 after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved FoundationOne CDx, "the first breakthrough-designated, next generation sequencing (NGS)-based in vitro diagnostic (IVD) test that can detect genetic mutations in 324 genes and two genomic signatures in any solid tumor type," according to an FDA release.

In English? It's a first-of-its-scope test that will determine the differences in patients' cancerous tumors and, as a result, potentially allow for more targeted treatment plans.

"Instead of going into the shoe store and having to have a nine-medium regardless of what your shoe size is ... you go in there and measure your shoe size. And you pick one off the rack, [and] that's exactly the one that fits," Ross said of precision medicine, the latest umbrella term for advancements in disease treatments and prevention that factor in individual variability.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) recommended that Medicare cover the cost of FoundationOne CDx.

"I think because [Medicare] is agreeing to consider paying for it, you can make it far more available to patients. More people will get tested, and more people will get the right drugs. And more people will live much longer," Ross said.

While Ross ventures far and wide for engagements — for example, he'll be traveling to Italy for a visiting professorship at the University of Milan in February, he said — he has made the Berkshires his home for more than four decades. These days, he typically spends about four nights per week in the county. On Tuesday morning, The Eagle caught up with him at Haven before he left town once again, this time for some work at Foundation Medicine's Cambridge headquarters. Before a plate of scrambled eggs and greens arrived, he nursed a cup of coffee and spoke of his long history in the area.

In 1976, Ross began working as a pathologist at Berkshire Medical Center. He soon met his future wife, Karen Coy, who had attended Pittsfield High School. Karen's father, Joseph W. Coy, had also attended the school and was serving as Pittsfield Fire Chief at the time. Her mother, Lucille T. Coy, sold home mortgages at Berkshire County Savings Bank.

"It's really a Berkshire family," Ross said, also noting the Berkshires ties of his children (Marty, Merrill, Michael, David and Alex, who is Ross' step-son).

Ross worked at Berkshire Medical Center through 1989. For the last 11 years of his tenure there, he was also Berkshire County's medical examiner. The doctor had received his education at Oberlin College and the State University of New York at Buffalo's School of Medicine; his training came from his time as an intern resident and fellow in anatomic and clinical pathology at Massachusetts General Hospital. A subsequent two-year active duty stint as a U.S. Army doctor was also a vital experience.

"As a pathologist, I was responsible for the safety of the blood supply," Ross said of his role at the end of the Vietnam War.

He spent much of his time as the chief of pathology at what is known today as Moncrief Army Health Clinic in Fort Jackson, S.C.

While he said he "didn't mind" his role in the military at the time, it's now "one of the accomplishments I'm most proud of. I really am proud to have served," he said after his breakfast arrived.

Ross' mission today, however, is to combat cancer using precision medicine. A turning point for the field came in 1998, when the FDA approved Genentech Inc.'s Herceptin, a drug used to treat a specific type of breast cancer. Ross believes that Genentech's decision to, in this case, shed the one-size-fits-all cancer treatment method was critical because it demonstrated to the pharmaceutical industry that targeted care led to more profitability.

"Before that, cancer was not a popular disease for drug companies," he said. "Patients didn't live very long on the drugs, so you didn't get to sell that much. But that day, with that drug, [those] drugs became like asthma drugs, like arthritis drugs. People will be on them for months or years."

Ross helped launch Foundation Medicine in 2010, trying to further promote this shift and help patients, including those who have had inadequate treatments in the past.

"I passionately believe every one of those [people] should have their cancer tissue — or we can do it out of the blood now — sequenced, the DNA sequenced, to see if they have any drug target that you wouldn't know [about] unless you did the sequencing, to try to get them onto a targeted or precision therapy and keep them going. And by keeping them going, you don't know if you're keeping them [going] for weeks or months or years, but if you can keep them going, it means they'll be alive for when a better drug comes out that's more powerful and more effective than the one they're on for that same biomarker, that same genomic alteration, that same mutation, if you like. And they see kids graduate, they go to weddings, they do the things with their family that they wouldn't have if this whole era hadn't started 20 years ago."

A lot of money is involved in this endeavor. In 2015, Roche bought a majority of Foundation Medicine for $1.03 billion. But Ross says Foundation Medicine tries to keeps its employees' focus on its products' potential recipients.

"We bring cancer patients to the company almost on a weekly basis to tell their stories so that everybody, whether you work in client services, whether you work in community relations or public relations or whatever, that you still don't get separated from the real mission, which is to help cancer patients, not to sell tests and to make money, but to help cancer patients," he said before leaving the Lenox eatery.

Earlier, Ross had made it clear he would be striving to fulfill that objective for the foreseeable future.

"I've spent so much time learning cancer genomics, and I can do so much for cancer patients because of the knowledge I've accumulated," he said. "To just go away from it and act like I never did it before, I think it would harm people. And if I keep going, I think I can help people. So, I'm going because I think it's a calling."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.

On the menu ...

Where we ate: Haven Cafe and Bakery, 8 Franklin St., Lenox

What the doctor ordered: Scrambled eggs and mixed greens

Price: $8.25 plus tax


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