Archive for May, 2017


May 30 2017

Memorial Day Break

by at 10:21 am

I hope you had a fabulous Memorial Day weekend. We celebrated our youngest grandson’s second birthday and had a simply wonderful time. His family officially moved into Bethesda on Sunday (only 20 minutes away) so it will be much easier to see them now. Quite a change from when they lived just outside Philadelphia! I got a bunch of work done over the weekend, and enjoyed a bit of rest as well. I’ll need it as I head into a very busy work week which will be punctuated by the annual ASCO meeting in Chicago. I am afraid the beach will simply have to wait.

Have a great week.


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May 22 2017

Birthday Weekend

by at 5:10 pm

I had a wonderful weekend, mostly because it was so restful. After participating in a dinner celebrating GU’s commencement speakers and student honorees at the Law Center on Friday night, we got home late, and simply hung out on Saturday. My birthday was on Sunday, and we had a lovely brunch with Mike Atkins and his wife Susan, and then entertained our grandchildren Isaac and Aviva while their parents Elana and Ben helped out our older son Ken and his wife Sarah with their move into their Bethesda home. We all then met at Casolare for a very nice family celebration.

The preceding week was noteworthy for a trip to Philadelphia for a meeting of the Fox Chase Cancer Center External Advisory Board. It is always nice to see old friends and catch up on the progress of their research. After my return, it was very nice to welcome an outside speaker, Jennifer Guerriero, who is actively exploring the roles of macrophages in regulating anti-cancer immune responses and chemotherapy effects. I was struck by how everything old is new again; my first NIH grant, a K08 award in 1986, was to examine the roles of macrophages in promoting the anti-tumor effects of monoclonal antibodies. My work diverted to NK cell biology for a crazy reason. I was eligible to try to renew that K08 grant in 1989, and wrote what I thought was a strong application for the renewal. But, just to be sure, I also simultaneously submitted a R01 grant to study the roles of NK cells in promoting the anti-tumor effects of monoclonal antibodies, and received a fundable score on my first R01 submission. Shortly thereafter, I received notice that my K08 renewal had been denied (the term at that time was “Nerfed”) because I no longer qualified since I was now an established investigator. So, from that point on, my work focused on NK cells. It’s funny how life takes unexpected turns. It all worked out, at least as far as I am concerned.  But, had there been different grant review outcomes, perhaps I now would be a macrophage biologist!

Have a wonderful week as we head into the first major summer holiday weekend.

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May 15 2017

Remembering My Mentor

by at 11:05 am

Ordinarily, I look forward to our visits to Philadelphia to be with friends and family. This is not one of those times. Late last week, Robert L. Comis died suddenly at his home in the Philadelphia suburbs. He was only 71 years old. Bob was the head of the ECOG-ACRIN national clinical trials cooperative group, and had just announced he would be stepping down from that position, though he was anything but retired. Under his inspired leadership, Bob had stewarded ECOG into the modern age and fashioned a true cancer center without walls, leading many transformative clinical trials that have contributed to improved lives for millions of Americans afflicted by cancer. A medical oncologist and lung cancer expert by training, he was a simply spectacular physician, clinical trialist, educator and leader. He inspired generations of clinical investigators and made the world a better place.

He was my friend, my mentor and my North Star. I first met Bob when he interviewed a very insecure and nervous senior fellow (me) looking for a job. He was in Boston and I was supposed to take him to Quincy Market to eat at an Italian restaurant. I got lost driving him to the restaurant (no Waze back then!) and was sure I’d lost my opportunity. He was very quiet – which, as I later learned, was a behavior reserved for when he measured the substance of an argument or a person. But, somehow I landed the job.

Once we started at Fox Chase, he took me under his wing. I received my first administrative duties (developing and overseeing the fellowship program, designing the outpatient clinic organization) and clinical research opportunities (getting me engaged in a crazy new class of drugs called monoclonal antibodies), and he always gave me the room I needed to fail, pick myself up and figure out how to succeed. After a couple of years, I had the crazy idea that I might be able to run a laboratory – even though I had relatively little relevant experience and training – and he gave me a small space and a tech, and let me run with the ball. He didn’t know a T-cell from a golf tee, but he was a wonderful and engaged reviewer of my earliest grant applications and papers. He made my career possible.

I was not the only person to benefit from his immense generosity of spirit and deep sense of humanity, which he demonstrated at the funeral of a former faculty member at Fox Chase. After struggling with a very difficult family situation, this faculty member – a beloved and gentle, kind man – snapped under the pressure, murdered his family and committed suicide. The shock was unimaginable – it was the kind of jolt that can fracture the spirit of almost any enterprise. At the memorial service a few days later, Bob delivered a towering eulogy where he channeled our pain and turned to the schoolmates of one of the victims and comforted them quite directly to assure them that they were safe, their parents loved them and this would not happen to them. He healed us. It was then that we all knew we were in the presence of a great man.

After he left Fox Chase, he tried to recruit me to his new institution, and I almost joined him, but was offered the job as chair of the department of medical oncology at Fox Chase and chose to stay there. The first call I received – I will never forget this – was from him. Without saying, “Hello, this is Bob”, I heard (and remember his gravelly, energetic and commanding voice as if it was yesterday) him bellow, “Mazel tov!” He was happier for me than he was disappointed by the failed recruitment. What a guy.

Over the years that followed, our paths connected less frequently, but always with great warmth and a sense that we were members of the same “family.” So, when I attend his funeral on Monday it will be with a keen sense of appreciation for the man he was, the impact he made on my life and on so many others, and with fond memories of an earthy, brilliant, inspiring mentor. If there is any afterlife with a sense of justice, it has a space reserved for him, replete with a baby grand piano, a well stocked bar, lots of friends and plenty of work to do. For if there is one thing Bob Comis certainly does not want to do, it is to rest.

Have a good week.

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May 08 2017

Walk the Talk

by at 2:28 pm

Well, it is time for my yearly shout-out to Jeanne Mandelblatt and the Lombardi-CBCC team, which once again led the way in the yearly DC Avon Walk for Breast Cancer. As always, the acknowledgment is not only wholly deserved, but barely does justice to the magnificent accomplishments of this dedicated band of walkers. Each one of them is, in his or her own way, a true hero, working towards the day when breast cancer has been beaten. They raised more than $260,000 – about one buck per blister – every bit of which will help stamp out this disease. Over the past decade, the team has raised an amazing $1.43 million, one step at a time, 39 miles per walk, and countless more per year. Everybody connected with the team, including me and new team member Mary Glasscock, is overcome by emotion when crossing the finish line at the end of each walk. I missed this year’s event, but certainly look forward to being a part of the action next year and in years to follow.

As for the knitter-in-chief, Jeanne has no equal as team captain, cheerleader and inspirational force of nature. Jeanne, thanks for always reminding us of the enduring importance of passion, commitment and leadership in the war against cancer.

I had another vivid reminder of the importance of passion and leadership when I attended a reception at the Rayburn Building at the Capitol on Wednesday evening in advance of the Capitol Hill Day sponsored by the AACR, ASCO and American Association of Cancer Institutes. The intensity and focus of the group to ensure that the NIH/NCI continue to support vital cancer research initiatives is remarkable, inspiring and effective. If current trends continue, the additional $2 billion in NIH funding contained in the continuing resolution will translate into continued support in the fiscal year 2018 budget as well.

The coming week will have fewer moments of inspiration, but lots of hard work, extending into Saturday morning when I will be giving a talk at the annual American Association of Immunology meeting. Fortunately, I have set aside a bit of time for some fun. We have tickets for the Nationals-Orioles game on Wednesday evening, and have dinner plans with friends on Friday evening at an acclaimed new Italian restaurant, Sfoglina. It is said to be a pasta lovers’ paradise. I’ll let you know what I think of it.

In the meantime, have a great week.

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May 01 2017

In the Swing of Things

by at 9:56 am

I guess I am definitely in the “swing of things.” On Monday, I attended the Ruesch Center’s first annual charity golf tournament and played nine holes with John and Liza Marshall, and with Paula Rothenberg, president and CEO of Hope Connections for Cancer Support. I was not nearly as awful as I had feared I would be, but also was not very good. TPC Avenel is a tough course, but I made a few shots that will keep me coming back for more punishment during the summer. Remember that “golf” spelled backwards is “flog.” Of course, the reason to be out there on a rainy Monday was to raise money, and that we did – despite weather conditions that ranged from dreary to monsoon-like. But what’s a little water when the money raised can help save lives?

I had to leave after only nine holes because I had to head home, dress and then head out to the 12th annual Women and Wine event at the Ritz Carlton in Tysons Corner. This event, which benefits the Nina Hyde Center for Breast Cancer Research, is an exciting, organically growing and utterly wonderful event chaired by Lombardi heroes and dynamos Barbara Schaefer McDuffie and Janet Davis. This year’s event broke all records. Six hundred fifty attendees (almost all of them women) were ably assisted by about 30 “wine dudes” whose tips amounted to over $13,000, aided also by a record breaking auction. Overall, the event raised over $560,000, the most ever. Shawna Willey, Claudine Isaacs and I gave a briefing on what is new in our breast cancer research, and how prior funds raised through Women and Wine events have supported that work. As a matter of fact, Claudine and Bob Clarke are embarking on a search for a new breast cancer program researcher fueled by the proceeds from previous Women and Wine events! Whoever said wine isn’t good for you?

Once the preliminaries were over, the men were booted out and the women enjoyed a lovely dinner. Susan Miller, another Lombardi hero, received the Lombardi Spirit of Life Award and reminded everyone in the room why they were there, and why it is important to raise money for research. Check out her video here.  She is an inspiration – a true reminder that what we do matters. There is no progress without clinical care that results from clinical research, and basic science advances are needed to prime the pump of clinical investigations.

Speaking of research, we had an organizing meeting regarding a potential pancreatic cancer SPORE application on Friday. It was quite wonderful – we formally discussed 10 proposed pilot concepts, and in the course of our discussions, batted about a few other exciting concepts that could develop into major efforts. This abundance of possibilities ultimately will be distilled into four translationally oriented main projects and 5-10 developmental pilots and career development grants. These activities will be supported by 3-4 cores as well. Of course, we will have to do an outstanding job to get the SPORE funded, but we have the requisite experience, depth, bandwidth and spirit of collaboration to get this done. I am excited about this effort and will update you from time to time as we move forward.

I intend to stay in the swing of things, but don’t see any golf in my immediate future. That’s okay as long as we make progress in the fight against cancer!

Have a great week.

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