Sarah Riehl's Weblog


May 22 2022

Learning to Live in a Pandemic

I’ve had a long weekend, so this week’s blog will be short. The University celebrated its graduates during commencement week. We are learning to live with COVID. Though its prevalence is increasing pretty much everywhere, immunized people seem to be able to avoid the most serious complications. I played golf on Monday at the Ruesch Center Classic Golf Tournament. I have never played worse, except for the last time I played.

My workweek was otherwise dominated by my pending R01 grant, which is due early next month. After a modest family celebration for my birthday on Friday at our home, Harriet and I decamped for New York City on Saturday to attend the Hackensack Meridian Health Gala.

We did so with some misgivings, given that any large gathering poses COVID risks. So, we drove to New York, got to our hotel in time to change into our formalwear (I do prefer that the Lombardi Gala is less formal now!), and grabbed a taxi to the Glass House, an event venue on 12th Avenue.

The event itself was fabulous. We pretty much kept our masks on for the whole time. There was lots of great food and drink, and the headline entertainer was Jon Batiste (the bandleader on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert”). He might be the single coolest, most versatile entertainer on the planet. His 30-minute set was great. The gala celebrated the life of the medical school’s founding dean, the late Dr. Bonita Stanton, who tragically died suddenly about four months ago.

On a happier note, the event also celebrated the remarkable, enormous and new NIH grant to Dr. David Perlin from the Center for Discovery and Innovation to develop new drugs for emerging viral threats. As many of you know, he is also our deputy director for consortium integration. Congratulations, David! The folks at Hackensack know how to throw a great party!

The next morning we had breakfast, hopped into the car, and drove to the beach, where we’ll be staying through Memorial Day. I’ll be working from here, and there will be no shortage of important work to do, though I hope to keep afternoons free for a bit of R&R. With some luck, COVID will wait on us for at least this week. My batteries could use some recharging.

Stay safe and be well.




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May 15 2022

Sorrow and Progress

I was looking forward to writing and sharing good news from the past week. I’ll still do that here in my blog, because as a group united against cancer, we must continue to keep our eye on the ball and celebrate our victories.

However, my message this week must begin on a sad note. There are no words to describe the horror and fear that must have fallen upon the people shopping in a Buffalo neighborhood grocery store as a lone white gunman shot and killed 10 fellow shoppers and wounded others. What we now know from reports is that this man killed the shoppers because they were Black.

Meanwhile, the indiscriminate mass slaughter of innocent civilians continues in the Ukraine. There is evil in this world, and when we see it we are compelled to stand up against it. The world has taken note of the Ukraine and has pretty much united to support it. When will we do the same for our fellow citizens, whose crimes apparently were to live normal lives? When will we as a nation stand up for our ideals?

Enough killing. No more words, please. It’s time for action.

There is no good way to transition to happier news, but I do want to share some uplifting moments from this past week.

On Tuesday night, Harriet and I attended a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Friends of Cancer Research, which was attended by a largely maskless throng of the oncocratic glitterati. COVID angst aside, it was a lovely event, and we seem to have avoided a coronavirus bullet, at least so far.

The next morning, I participated in a smaller gathering at the Eisenhower Building on the White House grounds to discuss the Cancer Moonshot. This all-day meeting focused on issues such as access to care and data transparency. There were about 60 of us, and I was joined by Lucile Adams-Campbell. I don’t yet know if any of our suggested action items will be prioritized, but I came away convinced that the Administration is laser-focused on the work to be done.

That meeting coincided with the announcement that Georgetown Lombardi has received a substantial donation from the Ralph Lauren Foundation to expand our work in community outreach and engagement under Lucile Adams-Campbell’s leadership. Many thanks to Lucile and Justine Weissenborn for their great work to make this dream come to life.

We spent the weekend in the Philly area, attending an event and then visiting with friends and family.

As we all process the events of this weekend, we can find strength in our shared fight against the common enemy of cancer — work that does not, and should not, stop!

Stay safe and be well.




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May 08 2022

National Nurses Week

Happy Mother’s Day! I hope all mothers and mother-like figures enjoyed the weekend.

We are in the middle of National Nurses Week. Think about the last two years — it has been hard for everyone, but in many ways, nurses have truly been our front-line heroes — from the darkest times of spring 2020 through the COVID roller coaster that has followed. They are our patients’ primary caregivers, their best advocates, and many times have been the last people who our dying patients would see as they succumbed to COVID — again and again and again, as we close in on 1 million COVID related deaths in this country alone.

No wonder that so many nurses have burnt out, their psyches ground into dust by relentless cycles of fatigue and misery. Many have left the field, others have moved into less stressful nursing roles, and still others have found that alternative arrangements — nursing gig work, if you will — beats the more traditional forms of employment.

Sometimes you don’t know what you have until it’s not there. Nurses, our health care system’s glue, are hard to hire, hard to keep, and it is incumbent on all of us to recognize that it is not just about the money. It’s about being part of a team, part of a shared mission that brings a sense of purpose and belonging. It’s about breaking down ancient hierarchical health care structures that don’t work in our post-modern, technology-driven, post-COVID era. It’s about embracing the future.

Health systems and clinical research enterprises like our own Clinical Research Management Office (CRMO) are living this new reality. Our need for nurses has never been greater, and we have a golden opportunity to rethink how we create work with added value that will foster excellence, inclusion, opportunity and purpose.

I want to acknowledge all of our nurses — those in the CRMO, and those who directly work with our patients — for all they do, and look forward to communally redefining ways to make their work, which is so very important, into the work we all do — together.

Meanwhile, I am looking forward to attending a Cancer Moonshot event, organized by the White House, on Wednesday of this week with Lucile Adams-Campbell. It promises to be very interesting. Stay tuned for more news about the event and some related activities.

Stay safe and be well.



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Apr 30 2022

No Blues at the Beach

I hope you enjoyed the beautiful weekend weather. Harriet and I snuck away to the beach and soaked up every beautiful moment (though my laptop seemed to be quite busy!). I finished preparations for Monday’s Faculty Sector meeting and hope you can attend. I also worked on a new grant application and reviewed an MS thesis paper. I was busy, but had time to take some lovely walks. We did not eat out, but we did bring in takeout.

We passed the time on the three hour drives to and from the beach listening to podcasts, transfixed by the Ukrainian crisis and other attacks on the democratic world order. I particularly enjoy the Ezra Klein podcasts and “The New Yorker Radio Hour” for their very thoughtful programming. Putin is providing a playbook for the aggressors who would destroy democracy, even as Zelenskyy, Biden and NATO provide a textbook example of how to defend the liberal world order and freedom, and the principles that have animated our country for almost 250 years.

Good news, training rides are here! BellRinger is a little less than six months away, and it’s time to get back in the saddle. Join BellRinger for regular training rides led by expert leaders. BellRinger isn’t a race and neither are these training rides. The rides will be casual and focus on safe, social group rides. Check out the full list of training rides online here. Everyone is welcome! I am bringing my bike back from the beach so I can get involved in at least some of the rides.

Stay safe and be well.




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Apr 25 2022

On the Road Again

So, we just got back home on Sunday evening after an eventful weekend. In Baltimore, COVID has been running through Elana’s family — little Eitan, only 10 months old, was diagnosed on Friday morning and spent that evening in an ER with a fever of 105 degrees. Fortunately, he was able to go home a few hours later, and his fever broke the following morning, Other than being uncharacteristically cranky, he seems to be recovering.

Of course, that put an end to our family’s plans to get together at Elana and Ben’s for a belated family Seder to celebrate Passover together. So, we had a little Seder with Dave and Kelly and their kids on Friday evening and then drove up to Philly on Saturday for another Seder with Ken, Sarah and their kids. It was wonderful, but nothing beats being together as a family.

Speaking of family, we spent Saturday night with Ken, Sarah and their kids and then drove up to New York City (we were more comfortable driving than training up in a maskless passenger train), met my brother Steve and his wife, Ryta, for lunch, and then saw the final performance (masks were mandatory) of his musical, “Penelope.” It is a retelling of “The Odyssey,” except that Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, not Homer, is the poet. It was funny, charming in its classic approach to the musical comedy genre (decidedly not in vogue these days), and the music was great. We drove home after the show. I asked Steve if he could hear the echo of our late parents’ clapping in the midst of the standing ovation that followed the end of the show.

Steve is my younger brother. He began playing the piano at the age of 3 and was a bit of a child prodigy. I remember that when he was about 6 years old, people would ask him to play a simple song, such as “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” by ear. He would do that, and upon request would play it in the style of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart or Gershwin. Even though he was younger than me, I remember figuring out very quickly that he had a special gift, and that it would be far more productive to celebrate his brilliance than to compete with it. We have always been there for each other, appreciating each other’s successes and being there for each other during the hard times. Throughout his adult life, he has mixed his love of musical theater with his work as a clinical psychologist and organizational trainer. He has a musical style that echoes that of Rodgers and Hammerstein, and perhaps a bit of Cole Porter, with very melodic scores that recall the 1950s, even as they address more contemporary topics. He has had a number of shows performed in New York and elsewhere. So, in many ways, seeing his latest show takes me back to my youth, while marveling at our life journey together. Good stuff, indeed.

Speaking of good stuff, please check out the wonderful piece on our local NBC station about the Walking Warriors, who will walk on April 30 to raise money to support breast cancer research here at Georgetown Lombardi. Jeannie Mandelblatt gave a fabulous interview; here is the link to the piece. Thanks, Jeannie, for the fabulous publicity and your great work in leading this wonderful effort!

Have a great week, and as always, remember to stay safe and be well.




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Apr 17 2022

Living Our Principles

This special moment in the year is a confluence of the religious observances of Easter, Passover and Ramadan. It is a time for community, for friends and family, and reminds us of the core principles shared by each of these great religions. If you have or are celebrating any of these observances, I hope this has been a time of love and reflection.

We spent time with family, though we all thought twice about it since I had gone to AACR in New Orleans. From what I can gather a lot of people came back infected with COVID-19; I guess that is what happens when more than 11,000 people from around the world cram together in relatively tight quarters, even if they are fully vaccinated. Fortunately, I appear to have dodged that bullet, but it is a reminder that, while we may not die from COVID, we most certainly need to learn how to live with it more intelligently, for, most assuredly, it is not going away. I think I am going to shy away from potential superspreader events for a while.

Speaking of AACR, I had a truly troubling experience there. I was asked to moderate a press conference on Monday, and one of the three press releases came from a Libyan presenter, describing how the remarkable disparities in childhood cancer outcomes in high vs. low/middle income countries have widened during the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic the survival rate for children in high income countries was 80%, but was only 20% in low/middle income countries.

Stop. Think about this. Relatively few children worldwide get cancer. How much extra money might it cost to assure that every affected child received the care that was needed? The answer: not a lot. Why has this not been addressed previously?

As I tried to process this monstrous disparity, the presenter then showed observational data that the 30-day mortality rate has been 35 times higher in children from low/middle income countries during the pandemic. So, when the presentation ended and I turned the questioning over to the press, I mentioned, “This is really important stuff. It’s unacceptable, and something needs to be done about this.”

The first question came from someone affiliated with a very prominent journal. “So, why is this news? Didn’t we already know about this?” I fought back the urge to snarl, and noted that just because something isn’t brand new, it does not mean that the problem is not urgent and worthy of a call to action. She shrugged and sat down. There were no other questions.

I was stunned. Have we become so smug and comfortable in our privileged lives that we are indifferent to the suffering of others, even if they are children whose parents don’t look like many of us? Is this what we are about? Is this how our religions teach us to behave? The Western world watches in horror (albeit receding) as Ukrainian civilians are wantonly murdered — perhaps because the victims seem to be so much like us?

Sunflowers were planted across the street from the Russian Embassy on Saturday in solidarity with the Ukraine. It was a wonderful gesture. But, who is planting something for the kids who are doomed to die of curable cancers because of the accidents of their births? Better yet, who is actually helping? When science is not linked to the public good, the advances ring hollow to me.

The Sunday New York Times ran an article about how St. Jude has set up a field triage clinic in Poland to navigate Ukrainian pediatric cancer patients for care at appropriate facilities around the world, including in Tennessee. It is a wonderful initiative, but St. Jude should not and cannot be the only answer. Why can’t something similar be done throughout the world?

Stay safe and be well.




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Apr 10 2022


Greetings from New Orleans. I am at the AACR meeting, trying to lay low a bit, but I have specific responsibilities to which I must attend. Louisiana has a remarkably low rate of COVID-19 infections, but there are a lot of people here from around the country, and a few from around the world. Everyone must show proof of vaccination; masks are optional — though I am wearing one most of the time when not eating or speaking from a podium.

So far, so good. I will report more on the meeting after I return on Tuesday.

Last Thursday during a community meeting on Zoom, President DeGioia talked to Victor Dzau, president of the National Academy of Medicine, about Georgetown’s Health Sciences Strategy Initiative (HSSI). Dr. Dzau described our HSSI as the “right time and the right direction.” It does seem to be the right time — particularly as COVID has further illuminated our society’s deep disparities — to design an academic health system that takes advantage of all that Georgetown offers, from laboratory science to health care delivery, health professions training, policy and law, and the humanities. If you missed the meeting a recording is posted. Also, be sure to watch for an email this week that includes a link to a survey that will allow you to weigh in and share your thoughts about our collective aspiration and identity.

Have a good week. Stay safe and be well.



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Apr 03 2022

In Flight

I flew on an airplane for the first time in more than two years this past week. I chair the External Advisory Board for the Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center of the University of California, Irvine and flew out Wednesday and back to DC on Friday afternoon. It was like getting back on a bike, but with a mask. The trip was uneventful, though a chance to be together with colleagues was fabulous. I didn’t realize how much I had been missing.

There is a lot going on, as always. I am helping Ben Weinberg finalize a clinical trial based on work we did in my lab for patients with pancreatic cancer. Now I am working on a grant related to that trial. Plus, I am gearing up for another trip — this time to the annual AACR conference in New Orleans. I’ll only be there between Saturday and Tuesday morning, but have a pretty full schedule.

I am reviewing an updated version of the Leadership, Planning and Evaluation section of our CCSG competitive renewal application, which summarizes many important changes we have made over the past few years. We still have over a year before the competitive renewal is due, and we have a great story to tell. Many thanks to Sharon Levy for organizing this work and making sure I stay on track!

Meanwhile, there still are multiple attacks on our communal safety and well-being. Placing internal political discord aside for the moment, coronavirus keeps trying, spinning out variants. Thus far, the numbers are still acceptable, but bear watching. Harriet and I did our part over the weekend by getting vaccinated with our second boosters. As before, we had few if any side effects, and the enhanced immunity can only be helpful.

Last but not least, Putin and his troops keep inflicting horrific tolls on the Ukrainian people, and the atrocities are out there in plain sight. I am beginning to believe that most of the rest of the world has been vaccinated against his particular form of aggression, and so far the immunity seems to be pretty effective. Let’s hope it stays that way.

I hope you’ll be able to attend the Health Sciences Strategy Initiative community meeting and reception this Thursday at 3 p.m. in the Research Building auditorium (or via Zoom). The title is “The Future of Health Sciences: Bench to Bedside to Population to Society,” which it reflects a Viewpoint in The Lancet written by Victor Dzau, president of the National Academy of Medicine. He’ll be at the meeting along with President DeGioia. After their conversation, there will be a discussion about our Health Sciences Strategy Initiative. There’s more information about the meeting elsewhere in this newsletter, but I hope you’ll join.

Stay safe and be well.




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Mar 27 2022


Can you feel the momentum? Traffic is worse, the streets are bustling and people are congregating. At least for now, the pandemic is taking a back seat to life. Let’s hope this is a harbinger, and not a brief respite. We can handle a few more hills and valleys here and there, but please, no more mountains and gorges!

I actually took a business trip on Friday. I trained up to Hackensack and then back home, uneventfully, and while there met with an extraordinarily impressive group of clinical investigators and scientists to discuss “big ideas” related to cellular therapy. Yi Zhang and Howard Xue are developing innovative strategies to enhance the fitness of CAR-T cells, and John Theurer Cancer Center has an impressive array of CAR-T clinical trials in multiple myeloma and lymphomas. NK therapeutics are being tested in leukemias, and CAR-NK cell treatments are now being studied in solid tumors. Many of these studies are being opened in DC as well. This is an important part of the future of cancer therapy, and I am glad we are a part of it.

However, while this is a great start, we aspire to lead in this area. While we wait for Howard’s and Yi’s technologies to mature to clinical translation, we will push forward with innovative IITs of CAR-T therapies in multiple myeloma, guided by Noa Biran; of NK therapies in acute leukemias, guided by Jamie McCloskey; and of CAR-NK cells in solid tumors, guided by Martin Gutierrez. Georgetown Lombardi Shared Resources will be critically important, as will the DC-based translational and clinical research infrastructure, amplifying the impact of this work, led by Geoff Gibney, Pashna Munshi and many others. David Perlin, Michael Atkins, Andre Goy and I will work to establish a GMP cell processing capability so we can innovate new cell therapy concepts in small pilot clinical trials. Clearly, this was a great meeting! I plan to return to New Jersey soon for our next meeting, which will focus on the intersection of cancer and infection. Momentum!

My long day on Friday followed a longer Thursday that ended on a thrilling note. After pandemic-induced postponements in 2021, we had an in-person (can you believe it?) gala at a marvelous new venue, The Anthem. Attendance was less than usual, out of an abundance of caution, but the energy was fabulous and we raised a lot of money to support cancer research. I am deeply indebted to Cristy Seth, Sharon Courtin and the rest of the Lombardi Gala team for expertly navigating unprecedented logistical and public health challenges to pull off this great event. Thank you!

In addition to the $1.1M raised at the event, we celebrated the announcement of a $10M gift from David Sumner to support the establishment of a vaccine-focused cancer immunotherapy center developed and led by Samir Khleif. We also acknowledged, with gratitude, the transformational $50M gift from Grant Verstandig, and the Verstandig Family Foundation, to support the Medical/Surgical Pavilion at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. We were pleased to have Grant’s parents, Toni and Lee Verstandig, join us. As if that were not enough, the attendees were treated to the haunting vision of the cancer center director looking like a clown while impersonating a BellRinger participant. More momentum!

You can see photos and read more about this year’s Lombardi Gala here.

Finally, I want to share a piece from the best writer in our family, my daughter-in-law, Kelly Scriven Weiner. She recently published a piece in JAMA Otolaryngology that places into perspective her experience as a mother and physician when our grandson Clark was born with a serious heart defect. Her piece moved me to tears. Kelly now works at MGUH, and she gave me permission to share this remarkable story.

To access the full article, visit the JAMA Otolaryngology page for the article here, then click the “Access Through Your Institution” option and enter “Georgetown University Medical Center” and your NetID when prompted (see these instructions from Dahlgren Memorial Library for details). Alternately, search for the article: “The Golden Hour—A Pediatric Otolaryngologist Reflects on Becoming a Mom in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit” using DML’s “Journal Finder” search option.

Happily, Clark continues to do extraordinarily well. Even more momentum!

Stay safe and be well.



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Mar 20 2022

Please, No Cake

We spend so much money to save lives. Newborn and adult ICUs, life-saving cardiac surgeries, cancer surgeries, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, stem cell therapies, chimeric antigen T cells — each of these can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for each patient, all to treat a single person in the hopes of saving one life.

Add to that the billions spent yearly in the public sector on life-saving therapies, multiplied manyfold by the investments of (and returns to) the pharmaceutical and medical device industries. Saving lives is an affirmative statement of our values and is good business to boot. While the United States is by no means the only nation that values human life, we have, perhaps because of our unprecedented and unrivaled prosperity and resources, taken the concept to its fullest extent to date.

In this country we debate, properly so, whether we can continue these practices in the face of an apparently inexorable climb to fiscally unsustainable levels. Yet we resist, partly because of the billions to be made, but also because the American narrative teaches us that, despite many tragic examples throughout our history, each of us is exceptional, and every life is precious. Putting aside the mind-numbing economics for a moment, think about what this says about how we value each human life. Through our actions, the answer is clear.

This answer resonates throughout our political history. A government of the people, by the people, for the people, a nation based on laws and led by those who guide but ultimately serve the people, is the proper home for a health system that focuses on the needs of individuals, no matter how sick they are. To be sure, the health system is deeply flawed, driven by the twin pillars of greed and intolerance. Far too little attention is paid to affirmative health practices, disease prevention and early disease management across our entire population. However, I challenge you to think of any physician or nurse who has not shed tears when one of their patients has been lost, despite heroic efforts to save their lives. This is who we are. This set of bedrock beliefs defeated the Axis in World War II and has created the miracle of global progress since the end of that terrible war.

Yet, here we are again. At face value, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which will go down in history as an epoch-altering atrocity, can be viewed as the twisted vanity project of an authoritarian megalomaniac. It’s hard to see past the heartbreaking images that flood our phones and TV screens. Without diminishing our sense of outrage and resolve to “win” this battle — though it’s still too early to know what “winning” means — the larger question here is whether the world to come will be one of laws that permit personal freedoms to flourish in our political, cultural and economic spheres, diminishing the influences of individualistic anarchy or identity-based tribalism. This is what the Ukraine is fighting for, what NATO is supporting, and why losing is not an option.

In the world imagined by Putin and his fellow travelers, only the “right” people will be granted freedoms, and only the privileged few will be granted access to life-saving therapies. The money so saved would be diverted to the self-indulgences of the elites. The rest of us will be advised to go eat cake. It will not be delicious.

Meanwhile coronavirus has rolled out its latest variant of concern. So far, we are in the clear, and in fact we will be holding our in-person Lombardi Gala this Thursday evening at a new venue, the Anthem, at The Wharf. The attendance will be smaller than in the past, but we have already surpassed our pre-Gala fundraising targets!

As we enter into a period of optional mask wearing on campus, let’s give space to those who wish to continue to masks. We don’t know their personal situations or preferences (and we shouldn’t ask). And, as always, stay safe and be well.




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