Today, Clara D. Bloomfield, MD, will be awarded the Henry M. Stratton Medal. The prize is named for the late Dr. Stratton, who made significant contributions to the Society and founded the medical publishing house of Grune and Stratton with Mr. L.H. Grunebaum. Dr. Bloomfield has been selected for this award in recognition of her remarkable achievements in the area of hematologic malignancies, especially acute myelogenous leukemia, for more than three decades. Dr. Bloomfield was kind enough to respond to our questions about her career and life.
What medical breakthrough has influenced or inspired your career?
In my last year of college, a prominent faculty member was being treated for Hodgkin disease by Dr. Henry S. Kaplan, the radiologist whose work was perhaps most responsible for transforming Hodgkin disease from a hopeless form of cancer to one of the most curable. I became fascinated with the idea of taking a so-called “incurable” disease and making it a highly curable one.
Why did you focus on hematologic malignancies and AML?
That same fascination with curing the incurable was fueled while I was completing a medical sub-internship at the University of California in San Francisco. I was doing rounds with one of the attending physicians. We had a young male patient with Hodgkin disease, and the physician stated that this patient would likely die. I told him that the disease was highly curable, and he told me that if I believed that, I could give the next Grand Rounds on the topic! Since the gauntlet had been thrown, I took a chance and called Dr. Kaplan at Stanford, asking him to give the presentation for me. Delighted, he accepted the invitation, gave the presentation, and then invited me to spend a day with him and his team at Stanford.
After that, I was sure I wanted to go into research and treatment for Hodgkin disease. But, when I began my fellowship, another fellow already had Hodgkin disease as his research area, so my professor suggested that I do my fellowship in leukemia. And, the same fascination that had attracted me to Hodgkin disease now excited me about leukemia.
What is the most rewarding aspect about your career in hematology?
By far, the most rewarding aspect of my career has been taking a disease from which no one is cured and finding hope. When I started, I looked at all adult acute leukemia patients who had been treated at the University of Minnesota Medical Center. The longest anyone had lived after diagnosis was 31 months. Now, we cure 40 percent of adult patients with primary (de novo) acute leukemia. Through my research and the research of other world-renowned scientists and clinicians, we’ve changed how we think about adult leukemia and lymphoma, how we treat and manage these diseases.
Early in my career, I began looking into the biological characteristics of the leukemia cell. In the early 1970s, when I was a young investigator at the University of Minnesota and an ACS clinical fellow, I was asked by Dr. Ed Henderson a noted leukemia researcher and author, what the theme of my research was. I realized I didn’t have one! I was just doing my various studies without much thought of some major, underlying theme or common purpose. I quickly thought about the research I was doing. It truly centered on how the make-up of the leukemia cell varied in different patients and how that affected outcome, something we would call personalized medicine today. So, I told Dr. Henderson that I was trying to discover what it was about the leukemia cell that dictated how patients respond to treatment. And that’s been the focus of my research for the last 35 years.
It is remarkable to participate during one’s career in taking an invariably fatal disease and helping make it curable. That’s how you make a difference. If you are going to work as hard as we do in academic medicine, you must make a difference.
What does it mean to you to be awarded the Stratton Medal, and how does it feel to be only the third woman to receive this award?
I am deeply honored to receive this prestigious award. It means a great deal to me, especially to be the third woman to receive the honor when there are so many women in cancer deserving of this award.
I guess I am somewhat of a role model for women in medicine. I think it helps one to see a person who is like oneself — either in gender, race, ethnicity, or age — succeeding in a field or endeavor where few others have gone before. In my case, I hope I send a message that communicates possibility, opportunity, and achievement to young girls and women everywhere. I’ve spent a good deal of my career mentoring other women and helping enhance university policies on equal opportunity employment and other issues for women faculty. The first major award I ever received was the Award of the National Board of the Medical College of Pennsylvania, the first U.S. medical school to admit women.
I am also honored to receive the Stratton Medal as a translational clinical researcher, and I’m delighted to see translational research and hematologic malignancies recognized by this organization.
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