For Dr. Don Morris, the concept of ”just another normal day at the office” doesn’t exist. With current designations that span the cancer care spectrum, Morris is an oncology expert, facing challenges as they appear on a daily basis across his several positions. The number of balls he has in the air is a large part of why he loves what he does.
“There are very few average days, and that’s why I like coming to work,” says Morris. “You know, apart from getting out of bed, taking the dogs for a walk, having a cup of coffee and getting into the car — that’s pretty standard. [But] once you hit the doors here, there is always something unexpected.”
Described by his long-time colleague Dr. Douglas Stewart as a “quadruple threat,” Morris holds a laundry list of high-ranking designations in the research, clinical, administrative and teaching worlds.
Today, his titles include facility medical director for Calgary’s Tom Baker Cancer Centre, department head for the clinical department of oncology in the Calgary zone, medical lead for the Calgary Cancer Project, associate senior medical director for CancerControl Alberta, and professor and head of the department of oncology at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine.
Having a foot in each area, Morris explains, is an extension of a philosophy he looks to imprint on everyone he mentors, including his own children.
“I tell my kids, ‘If an opportunity presents itself, even if it’s a bit scary for you, but would challenge you, then do it,’” he says.
A Fortuitous Path
Originally from Toronto, Morris never planned to work in clinical cancer care, or even practice medicine for that matter.
“Was medicine something that was preordained from high school that I was going to do? The answer would be absolutely not,” explains Morris. “The motivations for me were more fortuitous.”
Morris was always interested in science, and true to his underlying philosophy of jumping at opportunity, he undertook summer positions in the cancer realm while completing his biology/biochemistry undergrad at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., giving him a first glimpse into the cancer path he would ultimately pursue.
After completing a PhD in 1989 in cancer immunology at Queen’s, Morris faced a decision. He had been offered a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), though funding at the time was scarce for new investigators, leading to hesitation from the research-centric Morris. Taking note from a PhD supervisor (an MD trained immunologist) that a medical degree would provide increased opportunities, Morris decided to head to Calgary to study medicine at the University of Calgary rather than moving south to the U.S.
While cancer research remained largely at the core of what Morris loved, it was the human interaction that drove him as he progressed through medical school, internal medicine and medical oncology.
“Developing relationships with patients/families and pursuing better outcomes,” explains Morris, “is truly addictive.”
Working at the Intersect
After medical school, existing at the crossroads between clinical work and research would occupy a large component of what Morris did for several years. Practicing translational research at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre leading first-in-human reovirus clinical trials, Morris worked both in a clinician role, where he would see patients and understand the unmet needs of cancer patients, and in a research role, where he looked into solutions.
“It was ideal for me because I could actually take the problems that I would see in the clinic, and then be thoughtful about them, and try to answer some of those questions within the laboratory area to take back to the patients,” says Morris. “That’s kind of been my mantra for many, many years.”
In the research realm, Morris has held particular interest in the development of new cancer therapeutics, oncolytic viruses, immuno-oncology and translational research involving breast and lung cancers. A prolific force in the field, Morris has acted as local site lead for more than 45 clinical trials, national chair for multiple trials, and has published more than 250 peer-reviewed publications and abstracts.
Through it all, he’s not only watched, but played a part in bringing immunology treatment to the forefront in cancer care. Specifically, he notes fond memories from leading a first-in-human oncolytic virus trial, in which he worked with a naturally occurring virus with anti-tumour properties as a therapeutic option. He says the project holds even greater significance as it took place during the SARS viral outbreak, creating an extra level of difficulty in running a trial that effectively saw researchers injecting patients with an environmental unattenuated virus. Today, the work of the trial has paved the way to other oncolytic viral strategies and spun off into a small biotechnology company that has continued to run studies based off the initial work.
Laying a Foundation
Dr. Douglas Stewart, who is a medical oncologist at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre and senior medical director for the cancer strategic clinical network, has worked with Morris for more than 20 years. Through the years, he says Morris’s leadership skills have shined brightly, noting his particular aptitude for identifying and utilizing individual strong suits.
“He’s able to provide that mentorship and lead by example, which is great, but also he understands that different individuals have different strengths,” says Stewart. “He’s got his eye on the target all the time — on where we need to be. And a lot of that you know really focuses on optimal patient care, but also support for the staff.”
While Morris continues cementing his own legacy day to day, he’s also laying a groundwork for the future. Among his career highlights, he says, has been helping to foster a thriving oncology department at the University of Calgary, which he’s had a hand in since first being recruited as an assistant professor in 1997.
Adding to his investment in Calgary’s oncology future, Dr. Morris is currently the medical lead of the Calgary Cancer Project, which will carry over into a tenure as the new Calgary Cancer Centre’s first medical director after it opens, which is anticipated for 2023.
“[The new Cancer Centre] is a wonderful opportunity to truly make Calgary, Alberta, Canada, really something special from a cancer point of view,” says Morris.
Morris sees the new centre as a sort of “living laboratory,” with research taking place simultaneously with treatment, and the different departments guiding one another to help ensure top-notch care. Echoing that sentiment, Stewart says he is confident that Morris’s past experiences across cancer care will be a helpful asset in his leadership role with the Calgary Cancer Project.
“He’ll have great ideas as far as how to operate the building, both clinically and academically, and how to do the best to merge the two,” says Stewart.
Morris says the Calgary Cancer Project, along with his mentorship and teaching work at the U of C, represents a chance to leave a lasting impact. Beyond his own professional contributions, Morris sees the opportunity for legacy in the foundation he and others are helping to lay down today, which he hopes will cement Calgary as a cancer care capital for years to come.
“My only legacy that I would like to leave would be really smart, engaged people that we’ve recruited, and to let them carry the torch,” says Morris. “The new Cancer Centre is bricks and mortars, but it represents an idea. It represents a comprehensive care platform for best patient care. And that’s only going to happen with good people.”
Dr. Morris’s Career Highlights
1997: Appointed as Staff Medical Oncologist, Tom Baker Cancer Centre (TBCC)
2000-05: Program Director, Medical Oncology Training Program, and Chair, Oncology Training Programs Committee
2002: First-in-human oncolytic viral cancer therapeutic (Reolysin)
2005: Recipient of the Watanabe Distinguished Achievement Award for Overall Excellence, Faculty of Medicine, U of C
2007: Named Clinical Investigator of the Year, TBCC
2011-19: Director, Translational Laboratories, TBCC Dept of Oncology
2013-20: Division Chief and Section Head, Medical Oncology, AHS and U of C
2020: Facility Medical Director, TBCC, and Dept Head, Dept of Oncology, U of C, and Medical Lead, Calgary Cancer Project, and Associate Senior Leader, CancerControl Alberta