2021 Volume I
Wilmot Cancer Institute | University of Rochester Medical Center
Inside the Wilmot Clinical Trials Office The People Behind an Upswing
LETTER FROM THE DIRECTOR Hello Friends of Wilmot Cancer Institute,
Jonathan W. Friedberg, M.D., M.M.Sc. Director, Wilmot Cancer Institute
You’ll notice a couple of themes in this edition of Dialogue: climbing mountains and illuminating the vital work that goes on behind the scenes at Wilmot. The first refers to Al Bushnell’s hiking adventures in the aftermath of a stem cell transplant 10 years ago, which is documented in a short profile. It also refers to the big hill that our Clinical Trials Office has climbed to prepare for National Cancer Institute designation, and the teamwork involved in their continual effort. These stories demonstrate the incredible resilience that Wilmot’s patients, faculty and staff demonstrate every day, especially during the past 18 months. While the vaccine has brought a bit of normalcy, the COVID pandemic is challenging all of us on a personal and professional level. I am deeply grateful and proud of the way my Wilmot colleagues have responded to the uncertainty while we’ve marched forward with our strategic plans. The second theme — the back room— refers to the truly essential people and functions that occur every day here, but may not be as evident to outsiders. Given the complexity of cancer, most of our patients have several physicians and healthcare professionals involved in their care. Scientists, clinical study data managers, regulatory affairs specialists, administrators, and pharmacists are all critical components of our multidisciplinary teams. These individuals and their dedication make Wilmot unique in our region, as we all work toward the singular goal of eliminating suffering from cancer. Speaking of our distinction, I am proud to say that we remain on target to apply for a Cancer Center Support Grant (NCI designation) next month, with the goal of hosting a team of reviewers early next year. I’ll provide more details in the next issue of Dialogue, but want to acknowledge the hard work by our indefatigable team around the final preparations for this grant. Our commitment to invest in Wilmot’s research and clinical missions, education, and community outreach, has never been stronger. It’s perhaps the most exciting summer to be working at Wilmot since I joined in 2002. I invite all of you to join us in celebrating our successes and to collaborate with us in the spirit of Meliora (ever better)!
Jonathan W. Friedberg, M.D., M.M.Sc. Director, Wilmot Cancer Institute
On the Cover
David Linehan, MD, and Helen Peck, RN, lead the Clinical Trials Office at Wilmot. Photo by Matt Wittmeyer The Wilmot Cancer Institute is a component of Strong Memorial Hospital.
Wilmot Cancer Institute Advisory Board Members, 2021-2022 Richard Yates, Chair Elaine Bucci Scott Burdett Rina Chessin Patrick Cunningham Malik Evans Garth Hankinson Kathleen Landers John McKenna Jett Mehta Carol Mullin Ralph Olney Doug Parker Walter Parkes Mary Pluta Ronald Pluta Barbara Pluta-Randall
Cheryl Pohlman Victor Salerno Erika Stanat Dr. Eduardo Torrado Jerome Underwood Angela Uttaro Steve Whitman Paul Wilmot Keith Yeates John Zicari Faculty Members Yuhchyau Chen, M.D., Ph.D. Aram Hezel, M.D. Gary Morrow, Ph.D., MS Christian Peyre, M.D. Paula Vertino, Ph.D. Emeritus Members Judy Linehan Jim Ryan, Jr.
Ex-Officio Members Kellie Anderson Jonathan W. Friedberg, M.D. Hucky Land, Ph.D. David Linehan, M.D. Mark Taubman, M.D. Honorary Board Members Dr. George Abraham Richard “Dick” Bell Michael Buckley Elaine Del Monte Richard DiMarzo Joan Feinbloom Janet Felosky James Hammer Paul Hanrahan Gary Haseley Sandra Hawks Lloyd Mark Kokanovich Michael Linehan
Alyssa Lozipone Ronald Maggio Steve McCluski Michael Norris Jeffrey Pierce Larry Rabinowitz Donald Rhoda Gregory Smith Philip Wehrheim Timothy W. Williams Colleen Wilmot Dennis Wilmot Timothy P. Wilmot Thomas Wilmot Bruce Zicari II
Editor / Writer Leslie Orr Leslie_Orr@urmc. rochester.edu Contributing Writers Kellie Fraver Ruth Harper-Rhode Emily Hotaling Kristine Thompson Art Director / Designer Brittany Colton Feature Photography Matt Wittmeyer Jeff Witherow
CONTENTS COVER STORY
Clinical Trials Office Steps Up Its Game Busier than ever, this essential office at Wilmot is undergoing a transformation thanks to teamwork, leadership, and employees who care deeply.
2021 Volume I
6 Pharmacists As watchdogs, they focus on patient safety and education. Wilmot is part of a national trend.
8 Cancer Survivor Climbs Highest Peak in Northeast to Celebrate 10-Year Transplant In the Past Decade, Wilmot BMT Program Has Also Reached New Heights.
10 Cancer Researcher Scott Gerber Spins 'Gold Dust' - and pays it forward with his mentees.
12 News Briefs
PAGE 2 Wilmot Cancer Institute
Paul Barr, M.D., with lymphoma clinical trial coordinators Alyssa Williams and Mijamin Friend
Clinical Trials Office Steps Up Its Game Innovating in a Busy Clinical Environment Requires a New Mindset — to “Build an Airplane as You’re Flying It.”
any small business growth stories — whether it involves a benefit people with cancer. food retailer, a fashion brand, or even Zoom, which was much Against this backdrop, Wilmot’s Clinical Trials Office, known as less known until 2019 — have things in common with the Wilmot the CTO, set out to climb a big hill during the past few years. Cancer Institute’s Clinical Trials Office: They all require infrastructure, The goal is to meet the strictest requirements by the National recruiting, and acting swiftly and Cancer Institute for the way creatively to change. CTOs are organized and operate. At Wilmot, however, when Wilmot is pursuing a special improvements are underway grant awarded to the most elite — when a major new software cancer centers in the country, system goes online, for example, and as part of this effort, the or a new governing charter is NCI demands a comprehensive thoughtfully devised — it’s not evaluation. In response to the Helen Peck, executive director for Clinical as if business can pause, even upcoming review, the CTO began Trials Operations for a moment. Cancer is everplotting a strategic path for present, and patients rightfully growth and improved efficiencies. expect and rely on cutting-edge treatment. Clinical trials are often All Wilmot programs — research, community outreach, education the best way to get those therapies, and in keeping with the mission — are going through the same thorough analysis, but the CTO has of an academic medical center, Wilmot is committed to continually been making its changes while simultaneously providing cancer moving science out of laboratories and into studies that can directly care, and in the midst of a pandemic.
“Coming together, embracing change, adapting on the fly: You can’t do any of that in isolation.”
find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram
Chelsea Marsh regulatory coordinator Because health care is always evolving, producing a “version 2.0” of the Clinical Trials Office has required the team to find new routes to reach the summit, says David Linehan, M.D., Wilmot Associate Director for Clinical Research, who is ultimately responsible for the office. External consultants, including some of the nation’s top cancer center brain trusts, have looked under the hood and given valuable advice, Linehan says. They’ve assured Wilmot leaders that its CTO will shine among the best. “It’s been transformative,” he says of the CTO’s achievements so far, “and it couldn’t have happened if the 90 or so staff members had not pulled together.” One way in which Wilmot stands out is that it was able to keep up patient enrollment in clinical trials during COVID-19. Nationwide, there were legitimate concerns that clinical cancer research would come to a standstill. But while many cancer centers saw enrollments in studies drop, Linehan says, Wilmot in 2020 had a record number of individuals with cancer enrolled into treatment trials. Finding the Right Leaders A key to success in any venture is to find someone who has done it before. Wilmot found its authority when it recruited Helen Peck, R.N., M.A., O.C.N, as executive director for Clinical Trials Operations. Linehan says Peck is the true champion of change at the CTO: “She is best in class.” Her recruitment was strategic. When she joined Wilmot a few months before the 2020 pandemic, she had just helped the University of Miami Sylvester Cancer Center to successfully complete the same rigorous NCI evaluation that Wilmot is undergoing. Before that, she was in Detroit for 10 years, when the Karmanos Cancer Center was similarly vetted twice by the NCI. Peck, in turn, credits everyone else at Wilmot, from the executive ranks to the frontline. “The support here is phenomenal,” she says. “Coming together, embracing change, and adapting on the fly: You can’t do any of that in isolation.” continued on page 4
“Recently, the FDA has been auditing an experimental drug at Wilmot that’s seeking approval to go on the market. It’s probably the most stressful and exciting part of the clinical study life cycle for us regulatory coordinators: Everything has to be completely in order for the inspector. This is my first audit, and it’s on a gynecological study that I’ve worked with for a long time, so it’s kind of a proud moment. That’s the thing about being a regulatory coordinator — we don’t see cancer patients directly but this moment is what we work toward, when we can say, ‘This treatment helped people and made their lives better. Let’s make it available to more people to improve their lives as well.’ I didn’t know much about cancer when I started working here. I was a linguistics student at UR before working in research administration. Coming to Wilmot was a real eye-opener about what patients and their families have to go through. No amount of reading study protocols can help us fully appreciate that struggle, but we can still work hard to provide the best care and treatments available, and to make sure those treatments are always getting better.”
Jessica Wavercak, R.N. “I’ve always had a certain love for clinical trials because a clinical trial actually saved my life. At age 4, I was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia, and I relapsed when I was 10. My two best options were a bone marrow transplant, which was fairly new in 1996, or a clinical trial. My parents opted for the trial. I remember it like it was yesterday: frequent blood tests, spinal taps, biopsies, cranial and spinal radiation, and so many hospitalizations. At the time, I didn’t realize how much my illness affected my family dynamics, the whole family. My mom quit her job to care for me. My dad worked two jobs and took care of my three older brothers. I understand the stress and hardship of illness, and I am grateful for my family’s support and positivity. Without them, I honestly don’t know if I would be here today. I also never imagined that I would be helping patients get through where I once was. As a clinical trials research nurse, my role is new at Wilmot; I am a liaison between the clinical trials team and the medical oncologists, mostly working with leukemia patients. I get to come in every day and be part of this huge network of like-minded individuals to provide safe and quality care. Every time I talk with a patient, I remember the struggles I’ve gone through and continue to face — and I’m also reminded that my trial, years ago, ended up saving the lives of many young cancer patients.” Wilmot Cancer Institute
Camri Taylor study coordinator and data manager “I joined the CTO team two weeks before the pandemic hit and we were sent home to work. I was among the first to take part in a new, remote, onboarding process. We were all living in a world of unknowns, and now the workplace would face new challenges. I barely knew how to perform my job, but could not be more thankful for the colleagues who helped me along the way as I learned and overcame those difficulties. On some days, they answered my calls three or four times a day! After we returned back to the office, the constant assistance of my colleagues allowed me to be even more effective. The communication in this office, and the ability to give feedback, is so valuable. After what I experienced, I can see things and provide help to the newer employees, giving a voice to changes in the onboarding process. I am excited about the future. The CTO is moving in the right direction, and that alone shows progress. The way we do things is always changing, just like the field of medicine. We are working on improving things — but one thing will always remain the same: Teamwork makes the dream work!”
Carly Whritenor data manager for multiple myeloma “I’ve been in my current position for almost two years now. Prior to this, I had always been in roles where I interacted directly with patients —I never thought I would love a ‘desk’ job so much! I still feel connected to patients as I collect data for clinical trials and observe their progress. I have so much passion for research because it’s allowing our patients the opportunities to get medications that they wouldn’t have otherwise. And once these drugs are FDA approved, even more people will have access to them to improve the status of their disease. I feel honored to be a part of the cycle, where clinical research is evolving so quickly to help people. I work with a very small team and we’ve really pulled together during the challenges of the last 18 months. It was not an option in our minds to allow our clinical trials to suffer, no matter what else was going on. The bottom line is that we’re here for our patients to get them through what could possibly be the worst day, week, month, or year(s) of their lives. Being part of a tight-knit team with the same passion makes all the difference.”
find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram
Peck does single out four people in particular for their critical leadership: Jamie Littleton, M.S.N., R.N., who stepped in as interim director of clinical trials operations and has since been hired into that position; Tina Bowdish, M.S., director of regulatory finance and affairs; Erin Cebula, head of quality assurance; and Paul Barr, M.D., the CTO medical director. Faculty oncologists, who are key stakeholders and users of CTO services, have also been required to step up their game by relearning how to run studies in a heavily regulated environment, with new software, evolving priorities, and a changing staff. Peck also credits the patients who place their trust in research. “You can get caught up in organizational charts, but what’s really important is protecting all of the things that go on behind the scenes to maintain patient safety and their rights,” Peck says. “We take pride in providing a service that impacts lives.” Creative Solutions Most people may never see or understand the back room of a CTO. Each job — study coordinator, regulatory coordinator, data analyst, nurse, finance specialist, technical associate —provides support to approximately 60 cancer investigators. Wilmot’s investment in the CTO has been extraordinary, Barr says, and has allowed it to achieve a breadth and depth like never before. The team has taken on an endless list of tasks, starting, for example, with writing a new mission statement and governing charters for all aspects of the CTO; closing trials that were underperforming; implementing a new data management system that tracks all studies in real time; and creating a more desirable workplace with career ladders and better communication. The National Clinical Trials Network, an NCI-funded cooperative group system in the U.S., also awarded Wilmot a six-year grant to support patient enrollment in national studies. Wilmot is one of 32 recipients in the country, and Barr says it is more active than most other cancer centers in terms of accrual.
Like many workplaces, however, the growing CTO also faces post-pandemic challenges, such as staff turnover and filling the open positions. Barr speaks weekly to his peers — medical directors at other clinical trials offices throughout the country — and hears that a national shortage of healthcare workers and clinical research coordinators is having an impact everywhere. But by leveraging the University of Rochester’s assets, they are working on a solution. Peck and Barr have been reaching out to bright undergraduates with an interest in science, to fuel the CTO career pipeline. The CTO is also partnering with Emergency Medicine’s research training program (EDRA), to develop a route for new graduates who have already shown a passion for research and have received unique training as part of their undergraduate degree. Peck also got creative when it became clear, in March 2020, that COVID-19 would bring unprecedented challenges to the CTO. She dusted off a hurricane disaster plan she had used in Miami, and quickly got to work ensuring that extra communication was in place for patients and employees, and that the pillars at the CTO would not collapse. Reacting to change quickly is common in business but less so in the academic world. For that reason, the team takes pride in its ability to “build an airplane as you’re flying it,” Barr says — all while managing an avalanche of new treatments, some of which are on the fast track to U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval, to improve cancer care. “The one word is ‘teamwork,’ and that’s an essential element here,” Peck says. “Teamwork makes everything possible.”
What has the CTO accomplished? ✓ More than doubled
clinical trial participation since 2016
✓ New Initiatives to reach
out to underrepresented groups
✓ Balanced the portfolio of
trials, with more treatments for solid tumors
✓ Grew the number of employees by 100%
✓ Centralized operations under one umbrella
✓ Implemented a new software management tool to track progress
✓ Created ways to improve
Jamie Littleton, M.S.N., R.N. Clinical Trials Operations
Tina Bowdish, M.S.
Regulatory Finance and Affairs
Erin Cebula, M.P.H.
collaboration between oncologists and bench scientists
What is a clinical trial? Cancer patients may have several treatment options, depending on the type and stage of their disease. One option may be a clinical trial, which are also known as “clinical studies” or “research protocols.” Sometimes a trial is the best option. Clinical trials seek to answer research questions that may improve therapies or ways of preventing cancer or enhancing quality of life. They evaluate new treatments and sometimes answer genetics questions. Most trials have eligibility requirements. Choosing to participate is an important, personal decision and one that only a patient can make, often with the help of physicians, family, and friends.
More patients are enrolling in clinical trials
Wilmot Cancer Institute
Meet the Pharmacists Mostly Behind the Scenes, They Ensure Safety and Change Lives On Wilmot Cancer Center’s seventh floor, Carissa Treptow stands at a computer, scrolling through patient charts, looking for drug interactions and medication changes. A pharmacist with advanced training in oncology, she’s on morning rounds with an attending physician, medical resident, nurse practitioner, and oncology nurses. Their patients are being treated in the hospital for acute leukemia, a devastating cancer that requires strong drugs to wipe out all malignant and normal blood cells, with the goal of generating a new, healthy blood supply. They talk fast and efficiently, their sentences thick with medical terminology: “renal function,” “platelet counts,” “chemotherapy,” “comorbidities.” Treptow is embedded on this team for many reasons, but it boils down to safety and education. “Cancer is high risk and involves a lot of high-cost drugs,” she says. “We ensure what’s best, what’s the safest, and provide continual drug monitoring. We also ensure that nurses feel comfortable administering them. Being involved, being right there, is so important.” By integrating pharmacists into the inpatient and outpatient clinical teams, Wilmot Cancer Institute is part of a national trend in oncology. Pharmacists act as watchdogs for treatment decisions and bring a perspective like no other: catching details such as an individual’s change in weight that could profoundly impact drug dosing, toxic interactions among medications, and changes in a patient’s liver and kidney function, essential because those organs filter drugs through the body. “When a pharmacist is involved on the care team, safety is enhanced,” says Curtis Haas, Pharm.D., chief pharmacy officer for the University of Rochester Medical Center. “And it’s not just about drug safety. They help the entire team focus on improving safety for patients while they’re undergoing care.”
find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram
Hidden Superheroes, Ready When Called Pharmacists are everywhere in an academic medical center, but they tend to be invisible — until they aren’t. “Patients don’t see all of the things that pharmacists do,” says Stephen Valentine, head of Wilmot pharmacy operations. “They are integrated in so many ways. There are pharmacists that review all of the infusion orders; they look at all of the patient’s home medications, especially high-cost oral chemotherapies, and counsel patients; we write guidelines and review treatment plans. We provide a lot of support in the background.” Sometimes they do step out from the shadows, and when that happens, Marilynne Santangelo saw firsthand how they can save the day. The 74-year-old Rochester woman was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia three years ago. Treptow and Santangelo’s care team discovered that Santangelo was not likely to tolerate the standard chemotherapy regimen for that disease. Santangelo had few options — but a novel Pfizer drug that could help was available through a study, and had shown value in a recently published scientific article. Santangelo’s insurance would not approve it, however, despite pleas from her oncologist and Treptow. “This particular medication was vital to me,” Santangelo says. Treptow didn’t give up. She spent hours doing homework, something that’s routinely part of her evenings, reviewing the latest publications, podcasts, and data for cancer drugs. For Santangelo, she wrote letters, compiled financial and medical information, and appealed to Pfizer. The drug company eventually authorized use of the therapy. “She’s unbelievable,” says Santangelo, who’s health has been stable ever since. “I don’t know what I would’ve done without her.”
Advocates and Teachers Treptow is part of a larger team of more than 20 pharmacists at Wilmot that care for patients in the hospital, at outpatient
Carissa Treptow, PharmD and her patient, Marilynne Santangelo
Wilmot pharmacist Abdus-Samad Minhaj Wilmot pharmacist Sara
Zouine Wilmot pharmacy technician Leighann Zarpentine
infusion centers, and at home when they are taking medications provided by the Specialty Pharmacy. Many have completed a voluntary post-graduate residency, an eight or 10-year educational commitment, that starts with a bachelor’s degree followed by pharmacy school. They also contribute to the research mission by conducting independent studies to improve quality of care, says Travis Dick, director of clinical pharmacy practice, research and education for URMC. Patient education is a major part of the job for oncology pharmacists, Treptow says. “I talk to people a lot about what to expect, especially with chemo,” she says. “It makes it real for them, and at some point, they realize that this is happening. It’s a shock. Cancer is hard. So, I go back and talk to them again, because they probably didn’t hear a word I said the first time.” She walks them through the chemotherapy cycle, to anticipate when extra fatigue may set in. She explains temporary emergencies, such as blood counts that are too high or too low, and the role of supportive drugs such as antibiotics and anti-nausea medications. When individuals are ready to go home, she puts their medications in order. “With advances in oncology, we have more and more medications in our toolbox,” Treptow says. “We work hard as a team to get patients into remission.”
Streamlining Medications in Older Adults Polypharmacy, or the concurrent use of multiple medications, affects up to 92% of older adults with cancer. There is no magic number that makes a medication list too long, but the way certain drugs interact is important to know. And for some patients, being on multiple medications can make chemotherapy less effective. Erika Ramsdale, M.D., an oncologist at the Wilmot Cancer Institute with a special interest in polypharmacy, is exploring ways to help patients find the balance between the risks and benefits of their medications. She is also board certified in Geriatric Medicine, and has shown in research that when an older patient has a curable cancer and is undergoing treatment, a pharmacist-led intervention to “de-prescribe” some medications can be of great benefit.
“The more medications you take, the higher the likelihood of negative interactions that can range from minor to severe,” Ramsdale says. “A pharmacist is the natural expert in advising patients…and it makes a world of difference to their care.” Next year, Ramsdale anticipates the start of a randomized clinical trial for cancer patients aged 65 and older who are starting chemotherapy. She plans to evaluate the difference between a pharmacist’s personal interaction with a patient, versus an instructional brochure, to begin to safely eliminating the number of medications a patient takes. She’s also studying whether streamlining medications leads to better results from the chemotherapy.
Wilmot Cancer Institute
“My Wilmot care team was like a family...” -Alan Bushnell
find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram
Cancer Survivor Climbs Highest Peak in Northeast to Celebrate Transplant Anniversary In the Past Decade, Wilmot BMT Program Has Also Reached New Heights Alan Bushnell not only survived myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) but was lucky enough to cross a 10-year milestone since having a stem cell transplant. He celebrated by lacing up his boots and climbing Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, one of many high peaks and trails he’s hiked over the years since his transplant. While much has changed in the last decade, Bushnell’s adventurous and giving spirit has not. He and his wife, Kim, have a message for everyone at Wilmot. “We want the staff to know what they do really matters, and there are good outcomes, and we want patients to know that,” Bushnell says. “I was able to do these things and that’s important for the team to see, and also important for patients getting ready to head into these big unknowns to see — that there can be a good life afterwards.” Back in 2010, his life was filled with uncertainty following nine years of troubling bloodwork that indicated MDS, a type of blood cancer that can morph into leukemia. When his doctor said it was time for a transplant, Bushnell looked at other cancer centers before choosing Wilmot and Jane Liesveld, M.D., clinical director of the Blood & Marrow Transplant (BMT) and Cellular Therapies program, the Rochester region’s first program of its kind. It’s a decision he has not regretted. “My Wilmot care team was like a family,” he says, “and they were bringing on talented new people all the time.” The program has grown since 2011. Compared to the decade prior, from 2011 to 2021 Wilmot completed about 37% more transplants and began offering CAR T-cell treatments – a therapy that didn’t even exist when Bushnell had his transplant. CAR T-cell therapy has become an option for more patients with more types of cancer. Most recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved CAR T-cell therapy for multiple myeloma, and Wilmot has already treated one multiple myeloma patient through a clinical trial. Michael Becker, M.D., director of Wilmot’s BMT program and an MDS expert, says that people are a key component to success and growth. Since 2011, the BMT program has more than doubled its staff of nurse practitioners, added a physician, and is recruiting two additional physicians. Transplants are also available for more patients, and options
have expanded. Bushnell had an allogenic transplant, meaning a donor signed up for a registry and donated stem cells. In fact, Bushnell and his wife, Kim, have volunteered to hold bone marrow drives to help encourage more people to join the registry. Bushnell recalls his nurse once saying, “What’d you do, kiss the Blarney Stone?” because he had three 10-out-of-10 matches. While Bushnell was lucky, other patients are not always so fortunate to have a full match. It’s become more common to receive stem cells from only partly matched donors, which is called a “haploidentical transplant.” Patients may also consider a cord blood transplant, which uses stem cells from umbilical cord and placenta donations. Older adults also may be eligible for transplants more often, as the intensity of the therapy has been reduced. “When I started doing transplants in 1989, we rarely would even consider doing this for patients much above 50 years old but now we’re doing those into the early 70s,” Liesveld says. “That has expanded the number of patients who can benefit from transplant.” On the research side, the biggest leaps have happened in the lab, with data that suggests new treatments for MDS and other blood cancers are on the horizon. For example, a recent MDS clinical trial, opened by Wilmot investigator Jason Mendler, M.D., Ph.D., was based on science from the lab of Wilmot researcher Laura Calvi, M.D. “Our understanding of the disease is always improving,” Becker says. “We have a far greater understanding of the molecular and mutational and non-mutational events that lead to development of and consequences of MDS.” Patients like Bushnell and his family feel grateful. “I’m thankful that they have research,” says Bushnell’s wife, Kim. “I’m always amazed now to hear how things have changed.” That being said, Liesveld and Becker say they will not rest while there are still patients being diagnosed – and potentially dying – from MDS or other blood cancers. “We work every day to make quality, to make things better,” Becker says. Likewise, there are patients like Bushnell who have climbed the proverbial transplant mountain and who now want to help encourage others.
Above: Jane Liesveld, M.D., and Michael Becker, M.D., lead the Blood & Marrow Transplant and Cellular Therapies unit at Wilmot. Left: Alan Bushnell at the top of Mount Washington for his 10-year trip. Wilmot Cancer Institute
Cancer Researcher Spins ‘Gold Dust’ from Courage and Collaboration When Scott Gerber was 23 years old, he was a cashier at Dunkin Donuts and admittedly “lost” in a master’s program at the University of Rochester Medical Center. But he took a risk based on an interest in immunology, and signed up for an advanced seminar taught by Edith Lord, a prominent immunologist and former Senior Associate Dean for Graduate Education at URMC. The course was for PhD candidates. Gerber’s peers called him “crazy,” suggesting the material was over his head. It wasn’t the first time he would ignore naysayers. Gerber stuck with it and Lord saw promise: She snatched him away from the donut shop and hired him to work as a technician in her lab. It set his career in motion. “‘You’ve got the brains and the drive,’ she told me, ‘you just need lab experience,’ ‘’ Gerber recalls. After additional mentoring and investment from the Wilmot Cancer Institute, Gerber, 46, found his footing. He’s amassed millions in funding, most of it from the National Cancer Institute, an impressive amount for a mid-career scientist that includes three RO1 grants. The latest addition to his war chest is a particularly competitive NCI grant, which is worth $2.6 million. It is known as a multi-investigator award for translational cancer research, geared toward quickly bringing promising therapies to patients. The recipients are Gerber and his latest mentor, David Linehan, M.D., Wilmot’s director of clinical operations and a highly respected pancreatic cancer clinician/scientist.
Their project involves a clinical trial that combines radiation therapy and immune therapy, precisely timed, using a new drugdelivery system called microspheres, to destroy pancreatic tumors with fewer side effects. An “investigator-initiated study,” as it’s known, is when a homegrown concept is proven to be sound scientifically and ready for evaluation in humans. It’s a difficult feat that many cancer researchers aspire to achieve: moving basic laboratory findings into the clinic. They’ll also continue to investigate pancreatic cancer in the lab. “In science, the gold dust comes when you encounter very exciting observations,” says Hucky Land, Ph.D., Wilmot’s Deputy
Director and research leader. “In Scott’s case, his success is tied to his amazing discoveries about combination therapy.”
Out of His League?
A Lewiston, N.Y., native, Gerber’s initiation to science started in his father’s Niagara Falls veterinary practice, where he learned to analyze bloodwork and diagnose parasites and illness. From there, he attended a state school, SUNY Fredonia, for undergraduate studies. “Compared to the path that other new professors have taken, I do not have a certain pedigree,” he says, laughing. “But I work hard and I know my limitations, which allows me to focus on my strengths.” A tumor immunologist, Gerber enrolled in a graduate-level class when he was a junior at Fredonia — once again, ignoring those who told him the work was out of his league — and the professor, Patricia Astry, “opened my mind to immunology and probably doesn’t even realize how much influence she had on my life,” he says. While finishing at Fredonia, Gerber applied to veterinary school at Cornell University, mostly out of loyalty to his family. When Cornell put him on a wait list, Gerber felt free to look into other programs, and with his father’s understanding he landed in Rochester to pursue his real passion, the wonders of the immune system.
During graduate school, Gerber discovered a new technique for looking at tumors called “whole mount histology.” He published several papers as first author, and received his PhD in 2005. Two weeks later, he was at Yale University as a post-doc with his wife and infant son. While there, Gerber won a fellowship in cancer research; he had a prolific three years as the lead author for three more papers, published in scientific journals. Reflecting on these early years, Gerber says he’s driven to provide the same opportunities to the trainees in his lab at Wilmot. “That I can potentially have an impact on them — that’s the most rewarding part of my job,” Gerber says. “I’m still being mentored. And I tell my students that education is more than just the nuts and bolts of taking classes. You have to be smart enough to reach out and get help, and you have to listen to your mentors.”
While at Yale, Gerber had an opportunity to come back to Rochester, and he decided to listen to his gut. Although Gerber had the impression that returning too quickly to the URMC without funding would make it harder to succeed, his young son was struggling with a health issue and Gerber wanted to be closer to family in western New York. It turns out that coming home was the right move. At URMC, Gerber met Linehan, the Seymour I Schwartz Chair of Surgery —who became his next stalwart supporter. Linehan saw talent, agreed to mentor Gerber, and promoted him into a tenure-track position. “He took a chance on me,” Gerber says. “He pushed me, and told me that I have to start translating my science to the next level, and he was 100 percent correct. After that, we changed everything about the way we conducted our research, which led to numerous breakthroughs and our new clinical trial.” Today, the Linehan/Gerber research powerhouse at Wilmot is positioned to create novel treatments and to stretch into new areas of investigation. They are forging relationships with drug companies, so that patients will realize the full benefits of the science, sooner. “Scott is an accomplished immunologist with an exemplary work ethic who clearly wants to use his expertise to make a difference in the lives of cancer patients,” Linehan says. “What sets him apart is his dedication to teaching and mentoring young clinicians and scientists, with sincerity and kindness, to advance our field. His track record of success speaks for itself.” Scott Gerber, Ph.D., center, with his mentees, from left to right: Tara Vrooman, Joseph Murphy, Svetlana Markova, Taylor Uccello. Wilmot Cancer Institute
Scientist Wins (Another) Outstanding Prize in Medicine Lynne E. Maquat, Ph.D., an RNA biologist and member of the Wilmot Cancer Institute, won the acclaimed 2021 Wolf Prize in Medicine. This is the sixth major award bestowed upon Maquat in recent years, including the Wiley Prize in Biomedical Sciences (2018) and the Canada Gairdner International Award (2015), of which some winners have gone on to win the Nobel Prize. Maquat has spent her career deciphering the many roles that RNA plays in sickness and in health, and is well known for her discovery of nonsense-mediated mRNA decay or NMD. One of the major surveillance systems in the body, NMD protects against
mistakes in gene expression that lead to disease. Maquat is credited with several major discoveries that are informing a new generation of therapies for a wide range of disorders. In cancer, her laboratory focuses on pursuing factors involved in faulty cell cycles and signaling pathways. As founding director of the Center for RNA Biology at the University of Rochester, Maquat shared the Wolf Prize with Joan Steitz, Ph.D., Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale University, and Adrian Krainer, Ph.D., Cancer Center Deputy Director of Research at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.
Lynne E. Maquat, Ph.D.
Wilmot, Roswell Park, Collaborate on First Large Study of Immunotherapy in Black Cancer Patients The partnership between the western New York cancer research leaders will help oncologists learn whether Black and white patients respond differently to gamechanging immunotherapy treatment. Funded by a two-year, $2 million grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), with the possibility of additional funding after the initial phase of the project, the researchers are studying checkpoint inhibitors, such as nivolumab (Opdivo) and pembrolizumab (Keytruda). These drugs have become standard care for 16 different types of cancer. But because few African Americans participated in the original clinical trials for the medications, there are 12 find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram
major gaps in understanding how they work in this population. Checkpoint inhibitors clear a path for the body’s natural T cells to kill cancer. Their use has skyrocketed and may be partly responsible for a significant drop in U.S. cancer deaths. Wilmot and Roswell Park scientists are collecting data to investigate side effects and outcomes, and will conduct genetic analyses. They are also studying social determinants of health, such as access to healthcare, as a predictor of treatment response. Leading the project in Rochester is Charles Kamen, Ph.D., M.P.H., assistant professor of Surgery and a member of
Wilmot’s Cancer Prevention & Control research program. Gary Morrow, Ph.D., M.S., dean’s professor of Surgery and a member of Wilmot’s executive team, is a co-investigator and will leverage Wilmot’s position as a hub for the National Community Oncology Research Program (NCORP). Morrow is co-principal investigator for NCORP, which is supported by a $29 million NCI grant. The NCORP network provides access to hundreds of community oncology clinics in the U.S., where researchers can carry out the immune checkpoint study. The team also plans to enroll study participants locally.
Boosting Diversity in the Cancer Care Workforce Wilmot Cancer Institute took a step toward improving diversity among oncologists by hosting an inaugural summer internship program for rising second-year University of Rochester medical students. Selected by the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) as one of only five host institutions for the program, Wilmot provided education, mentoring, and networking activities for the students, including shadowing Wilmot oncologists in the clinic. Census data shows that while the U.S. population is more than 13% Black and 19% Hispanic or Latino, only 5% of practicing physicians are Black and 5.8% are Hispanic/Latino. An even greater disparity exists in cancer care; only 3% of practicing oncologists are Black and 4.7% are Hispanic or Latino, and there is a general shortage of medical oncologists nationwide. Diversifying the physician workforce could help improve health disparities, according to the National Academy of Medicine. Carla Casulo, M.D., associate professor
of Hematology/Oncology at Wilmot and a member of the ASCO Education Council, applied for and led the internship program, which took place in June and July and will continue for the next two summers; Ruth
O’Regan, M.D., Chair of Medicine at UR and a breast cancer clinician, also supports this program as Wilmot’s Associate Director for Cancer Research Training and Education Coordination (CRTEC).
ASCO intern Bianca Duah, talks with Wilmot oncologist Arpan Patel, M.D.
Can’t Quit Smoking? Maybe You Haven’t Gotten the Right Message Investigators have launched a research project to develop different text messages for smoking cessation — rewards versus threats, for example —and are studying them in clinical trials to find out what works best. Smoking cessation research is not new, but Wilmot Cancer Institute is being innovative: It received a $1 million federal Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grant, an unusual award for a cancer center; the researchers are also partnering with a small business, Agile Health Inc., a digital engagement company that leverages text messages, to help people make healthy decisions. The novel approach is thanks to Paula Cupertino, Ph.D., associate director of Wilmot’s Community Outreach & Engagement (COE) program, and Francisco Cartujano, M.D., assistant director of COE. They plan to recruit about 2,600 smokers from a 27-county area that includes Rochester and extends up to Oswego and down to the Southern Tier. Researchers will pay special attention to the Latino population because, according to data, it has not been as successful at quitting. Through partnerships with co-investigators, the study goal is to enroll and engage 1,300 Latino people from upstate New York and in California. Wilmot Cancer Institute
Sobel Gift Honors Brian Marples and Has Lasting Impact on Radiation Oncology A gift from Sidney Sobel, M.D., (’73M), and his wife, Barbara, recently established the Dr. Sidney H. and Barbara L. Sobel Professorship in Radiation Oncology at the Wilmot Cancer Institute. The professorship supports an accomplished Wilmot faculty member who is dedicated to advancing radiation oncology research and education. Brian Marples, Ph.D., has been named the inaugural recipient of the professorship. Marples is an internationally renowned radiation biologist and educator whose research focuses on normal tissue toxicity. “Making this gift is very meaningful to Barbara and me — it will support excellence in radiation oncology at the University, in a field and place that have meant so much to me,” Sobel says. “We are especially pleased that Brian Marples will be the first recipient.” “This is such a generous gift, one that will forever benefit radiation oncology research, Wilmot, and our patients,” says Jonathan Friedberg, M.D., M.M.Sc., director of the Wilmot Cancer Institute. “The professorship not only honors Dr. Sobel’s many contributions here, it will help us recruit and retain world-class cancer researchers and educators like Dr. Marples. We are tremendously grateful to the Sobels for their leadership within the community and their ongoing support of our institution.” “I am very proud to be the first person to hold this named professorship,” Marples says. “Along with my own work, this professorship broadly honors the Radiation Oncology department and Wilmot’s commitment to excellence in research, teaching, and clinical care. This gift will have a long-lasting impact because it secures a strong foundation for radiation and radiation biology research at the University of Rochester Medical Center.” Radiation oncology at Wilmot is recognized for its advanced technology, treatment and research. Its clinicians combine 14 find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram
sophisticated medical physics and the latest knowledge in cancer and radiation biology to enhance treatment efficacy, accuracy, and precision, which improves cancer control and quality of life for patients. “Dr. Sobel has made an indelible impact on cancer patient care in the Rochester community during his time as a clinical associate professor here,” adds Yuhchyau Chen, M.D., Ph.D., professor and chair of Radiation Oncology, and a colleague who worked with Sobel for more than 20 years. “We will always honor his commitment to this department and to our patients.” Forty years ago, Sobel was practicing vascular surgery in Maine when he severely injured his back in an accident. It set his career on a different path, and led him to take a fellowship in multidisciplinary oncology at URMC. He chose to retrain in radiation oncology, a field that drew on many of his surgical skills. In 1981, after practicing radiation oncology at Highland Hospital for seven years, Sobel was appointed associate professor of Radiation Oncology at URMC. He also became chief of Radiation Oncology at Genesee Hospital, where he established his practice, Genesee Radiation Oncology. In 1985, he built a treatment facility, Finger Lakes Radiation Oncology Center, in Clifton Springs, to serve cancer patients from rural areas, who, without local access, might not otherwise have received radiation treatment. In 1989, he built Batavia Radiation Oncology Center, and in 1993, a cancer treatment center in Hornell. “It has been very fulfilling for me as the developer of these rural cancer treatment facilities, and as a provider of professional services, to see them continuing in the University of Rochester and the Rochester Regional Health systems,” adds Sobel. “But, perhaps most gratifying has been the support of my wife, Barbara, in all these endeavors, and the many exceptional people who joined me in my work over the years."
Virtual Discovery Ball a Great Success On April 15, the virtual Discovery Ball raised more than $280,000, airing on WROC-TV Channel 8 and streaming at RochesterFirst. com. More than 8,800 people tuned in, while thousands saw videos and other content posted on social media. Viewers heard from Wilmot’s worldclass cancer research team, learned about community outreach efforts, and enjoyed music from Big Eyed Phish, Jim Brickman, and Jazmine Saunders, an Eastman School of Music opera singer, as well as a cooking demonstration from local personality Pauly Guglielmo, who started his own business to manufacture pasta sauce. The event also
featured patients who received life-saving care at Wilmot, like pancreatic cancer survivor and single mom Angela Uttaro, and leukemia survivor and new college graduate Emily Robbins. (Read more about Emily on page 16 and watch their stories at uofr.us/DiscoveryBallUttaro and uofr.us/ DiscoveryBallRobbins.) Wilmot extends its deepest gratitude to all sponsors, donors, and community members, as well as Discovery Ball committee members Kathy Landers, Mike Reed, Lois Taubman, PJ Wilmot, and Keith Yeates, and Wilmot Cancer Institute leadership, for their generosity and support.
Funds raised will support new scientific discoveries, advance care and access to state-of-the-art clinical trials, and help to recruit and retain world-class cancer researchers and clinicians. To donate to the Discovery Ball Fund, please visit: uofr.us/ DiscoveryBallFund.
Wilmot’s junior faculty uses the latest technology to study cancer and search for the next generation of treatments. Wilmot Cancer Institute
Warrior Walk: Team ‘Robbins Strong’ Gives Back to Cancer Research At 22, Emily Robbins had just graduated from college, started her first full-time job, and was in the best shape of her life, having completed nine half marathons and one full marathon. A few months later, she was diagnosed with leukemia. It was a tough road for Robbins. Her oncologist, Kristen O’Dwyer, M.D., prescribed a research-backed, two-year treatment plan that included a month in the hospital at Wilmot. Robbins left her job and became so weak she had to relearn everyday tasks like walking. But with the support of O’Dwyer, and her parents, who moved to Rochester to care for her, Robbins regained her strength, started
a new career, and began running again. In 2020, she participated in the Wilmot Warrior Walk, and her team, Robbins Strong, raised more than $2,400 to support the Judy DiMarzo Cancer Survivorship Program and cancer research at Wilmot. “I owe my life to the doctors and nurses at Wilmot,” Robbins said. “This experience made me realize how important cancer research is, and I will give back any chance I get.” This year’s Warrior Walk will take place on the weekend of September 10 - September 12. To sign up or donate, please visit: uofr.us/WarriorWalk2021.
“I owe my life to the doctors and nurses at Wilmot...”
16 find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram
Creating a Lifesaving Legacy for the Generations “The University of Rochester is a vital part of our community. We knew our support could help its mission to provide remarkable medical care and encourage an excellent education rooted in science. Creating a charitable remainder unitrust was a gift to the University, as well as an investment for our own future. Two generations of our family will receive something back, so it is a win-win situation. We directed our gift toward creating an endowment that will support the advancement of medical research, as well as the educational experience for residents and research scientists.”
T H E G U P TA FA M I LY Virendra Gupta ’80S (MBA), P’87, P’90, P’91S (MBA) and Uma Gupta P’87, P’90, P’91S (MBA), with son, Atul ’87
To learn more about charitable remainder trusts and other planned giving methods, contact the Office of Trusts, Estates & Gift Planning (800) 635-4672 • (585) 275-8894 email@example.com • www.rochester.giftplans.org/trusts
Imagine your legacy.
University funds and trusts are managed for growth and stability in a highly diversified long-term investment pool, which includes alternative investments. For more information, visit www.rochester.edu/endowment. Wilmot Cancer Institute
Wilmot Cancer Institute 601 Elmwood Avenue, Box 704 Rochester, NY 14642
/wilmotcancerinstitute 18 find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram
Non-Profit Org. U.S. Postage PAID Permit No. 780 Rochester, NY
Wilmot Cancer Institute at Strong Memorial Hospital's News Magazine - 2021 V1