The Road to Medical Glory

Can Southern Nevada become a health care hub? Maybe, with a little cooperation among geniuses.

Illustration by Jesse Sutherland

Illustration by Jesse Sutherland

Outlining the reasons why he chose to leave Nevada Cancer Institute in 2010 for a position as vice president of research at Roseman University of Health Sciences, Ron Fiscus starts with the obvious: He was needed. The Henderson-based university—which offers degrees in orthodontics, dental medicine, pharmacy, nursing and business administration—required a scientific research program to maintain its accreditation and bolster the medical school that it began creating this spring.

The move turned out to be fortuitous for Fiscus and his assistant, Mary Johlfs, who went with him to help build Roseman’s research lab. The Nevada Cancer Institute closed its doors at the beginning of this year after a two-year struggle that included laying off much of its staff, declaring bankruptcy and selling its patient-services assets to the UC San Diego Health System.

Fiscus wanted to stay in Southern Nevada, and he prefers private, nonprofit schools for their stability. Just as the University of Nevada system was laying off hundreds of people, he says, Roseman was hiring hundreds. Not that he’s worried about job security: Fiscus is an elite molecular pharmacologist, having trained at the UCSD and Stanford Medical Schools. His research even contributed to the development of erectile-dysfunction drugs—and helped his supervisor win the 1998 Nobel Prize for Medicine.

In three years, Fiscus and Johlfs have built a 9,000-square-foot facility staffed by 12 scientists (including a few other former Nevada Cancer Institute researchers)post-doctoral students, assistants and administrative personnel. Their work in the school’s cancer, diabetes & obesity, and Alzheimer’s & Parkinson’s research centers has produced eight peer-reviewed articles and three book chapters. Johlfs, who is now Roseman’s director of research operations, is an expert at operating several cutting-edge analytical instruments that can be found nowhere else in the state or region, in some cases.

Still, the pair says, their biggest challenges are raising awareness, community support and funds, and recruiting new talent. Their struggle speaks to more than the blemish Nevada Cancer Institute’s failure left on Las Vegas’ medical record; it also illustrates the way certain industries tend to form circular firing squads.

Scarcity of resources can breed opportunity for innovators; what Fiscus is doing at Roseman is an example. But scarcity can also create bruising—and occasionally counterproductive—competition. Supporters of the University of Nevada School of Medicine tend to denigrate their smaller counterparts, likening Roseman and Touro University Nevada to glorified nursing and pharmacy schools. Roseman proponents, meanwhile, hasten to point out that Touro offers a doctor of osteopathic medicine degree, not an M.D. (sniff!), which is Roseman’s goal for its medical school. And almost everyone is skeptical of University of Nevada Medical School Dean Thomas Schwenk’s ability to realize his dream of taking the school to the next level by building a true Southern Nevada campus and better balancing the clinical and academic offerings in Reno and Las Vegas.

In the battle for limited resources, whose voice will prevail? Hopefully, that of Michael Harter, executive director of Touro, who believes that some form of cooperation between all the players in the local medical community—academic and otherwise—will offer the quickest and surest path to success for all.

Harter may be onto something. If Southern Nevada is going to establish itself as a medical-industry heavyweight, its disjointed collection of medical schools may have to band together. Imagine a team of Harter, Fiscus and Schwenk negotiating with hospitals to solve the problem of inadequate graduate medical opportunities for their grads, who too often leave the state for internships and residencies.

None of our existing institutions currently has enough power on its own to turn this town into a hub for high-level research, clinical trials and treatment. But in collaboration? Maybe then talented individuals such as Ron Fiscus wouldn’t have to explain why they stayed in Las Vegas. Maybe, even, they could get a few of their peers to join them here.

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