Today, Dr. Kenneth Anderson will be awarded the William Dameshek Prize. The prize, named for Dr. William Dameshek, a past president of ASH and the founding editor of its journal, Blood, is awarded to an individual who has made an outstanding contribution in hematology during the preceding years. Dr. Anderson has been selected for this award in recognition of his contributions to the treatment of myeloma. Dr. Anderson was kind enough to respond to our questions about his career and life.
When did you first become interested in hematology, and what attracted you to choose it as your career path?
I entered medical school with a strong interest in science and biology, coupled with a heartfelt desire to apply advances to improve treatments. My interest in hematology, and hematologic malignancies in particular, was kindled very early in the first year of medical school by a mentor, Dr. Richard Humphrey, who used laboratory and animal models to provide the framework for derived clinical trials for patients with myeloma. He was uniquely committed to both the medical and personal needs of his patients. I was fascinated by the biology, and most particularly by the opportunity to couple scientific discovery with compassionate patient care.
What do you find to be most rewarding about a career in hematology?
There are many very fulfilling and rewarding features of our profession. First, in the laboratory, the hematologic malignancies provide an opportunity to use laboratory and animal models and patient cells to study disease pathogenesis, identify novel therapeutic targets, and validate targeted therapies. Second, the hematologic malignancies have always served as a paradigm for the development of curative combination therapies, and we are privileged to be able to rapidly translate preclinical findings to clinical trials of novel targeted therapies. To be able to watch the natural history of disease forever altered and patient outcome improved is our treasured goal. Finally, hematology provides the opportunity to teach the next generation of scientific and clinical investigators.
What made you decide to focus on the treatment of myeloma?
As I mentioned previously, Dr. Humphrey taught me that myeloma was incurable but represented an opportunity to model cancer in its microenvironment using laboratory and animal preclinical models. In addition, even as a first-year medical student I attended clinics with him and was inspired by the patients and his example of compassionate care. The chance to rapidly translate scientific observations to clinical trials and ultimately receive FDA approval of targeted therapies provides a most special and unique focus and reward.
What has been the biggest challenge in your career?
The biggest challenge is to balance a very active basic and clinical research program. Progress in laboratory science and parallel progress in clinical research is advancing at such a rapid pace that keeping apprised of and exploiting this progress to help patients represents my major challenge. Nonetheless, it pales in comparison with the challenges faced by our patients, who daily serve as an inspiration for all that we do.
What does it mean to you to be awarded the Dameshek Prize?
It is an extraordinary honor for which I am very humbled and most grateful. Dr. Dameshek was a true giant in hematology, a master clinician whose seminal observations elucidated pathogenesis and pioneered new treatments for lymphoproliferative and autoimmune diseases. He was a selfless role model and teacher who trained generations of hematologists worldwide. It is truly an honor for me to be associated with his legacy.
In this historic 50th anniversary year, we have spent a lot of time looking back at the history of the field and of ASH. What past medical breakthrough has influenced or inspired your career?
I think that the major breakthrough in myeloma came with the recognition of the importance of the tumor cell microenvironment (i.e., the bone marrow milieu) in supporting myeloma cell growth, survival, and drug resistance. This has translated to therapies, such as thalidomide, bortezomib, and lenalidomide, which target not only the tumor cell, but also the bone marrow microenvironment, and can overcome resistance to conventional therapies. These agents have transformed forever the way we treat myeloma and remarkably improved patient outcome. The paradigm of targeting tumor cells in their microenvironment offers great promise to improving outcome in other hematologic malignancies and solid tumors as well.
What do you hope to accomplish next?
I am most excited at the progress made in the treatment of myeloma to date, with unprecedented response rates and prolonged median survival of our patients when novel therapies are incorporated into their treatment paradigm. Already the median survival of patients with myeloma has doubled, making it a chronic illness in many patients. We will continue to use onco-genomic studies and model systems of myeloma in its bone marrow milieu to identify novel therapeutic targets, validate targeted therapies, inform combination clinical trials, and change the natural history of myeloma. Combination therapies have cured hematologic malignancies, including childhood ALL, Hodgkin disease, and some non-Hodgkin lymphomas, and it is my sincerest hope and expectation that future combined therapies, predicated upon enhancing myeloma cytotoxicity in the bone marrow milieu, may also offer curative potential in myeloma.
Dr. Anderson will receive his award today at the Announcement of the Dameshek Prize and the Stratton Medal, starting at 9:30 a.m. in South Halls B and C of the Moscone Center.
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