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Education: Feature

Annual Report - 2005-2006

Right Time, Right Place 
to Make a Difference

By Mary Jane Schier

Padmanee Sharma, M.D., Ph.D., decided to be a doctor soon after recovering from a childhood accident.

“A wonderfully kind pediatrician took care of me during my hospital stay,” Sharma remembers, “so I began thinking about how I could help people if I became a doctor.”

She discovered “the excitement of doing my own laboratory experiments” while getting a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s in biotechnology at Boston University. Her goal to combine caring for cancer patients with conducting research in immunology evolved at Pennsylvania State University, where she earned a medical degree and Ph.D., and won awards for both research and clinical achievements.

That’s why she was thrilled to be chosen in the fall of 2005 for M. D. Anderson’s Physician-Scientist Program, which is providing her with protected time to combine medicine and research.

Established in 1998, the program prepares talented junior faculty to become future leaders in translational research. Participants are oncologists and many also have a Ph.D. To be accepted, each applicant must have demonstrated expertise in laboratory studies as well as clinical care and express a commitment to translational research.

“Our program gives participants dedicated laboratory time, financial resources and mentoring guidance over a three-year period to develop independent research that will apply new knowledge more rapidly to improve clinical cancer care,” explains Robert C. Bast Jr., M.D., vice president for translational research.

Patient motivation

Seeing patients each Tuesday in the Genitourinary Center inspires Sharma to work harder on her research to develop new immunotherapy strategies that will improve combination therapies for many more patients.

“I love the interaction with patients, and I am fascinated with research. During my medical oncology rotation, I saw the urgent need for better therapies,” says Sharma, assistant professor in the Departments of Genitourinary Medical Oncology and Immunology at M. D. Anderson.

Having two senior faculty leaders as her physician-scientist mentors is helping Sharma make progress faster than she hoped. “They are incredibly supportive,” she says about Christopher J. Logothetis, M.D., and Yong-Jun Liu, M.D., Ph.D., who chair the Departments of Genitourinary Medical Oncology and Immunology, respectively.

Sharma’s research involves identification and correlation of immune responses, tumor responses and adverse events in bladder and prostate cancer patients who have been treated with different immunotherapy agents.

“My lab handles blood and tissue samples from patients with bladder and prostate cancer. We assess their baseline immune responses and track changes over the course of their treatment to identify surrogate markers that predict for better outcomes. We can improve some patients’ immune responses, which correlate with improvement in tumor responses, with either the NY-ESO-1 DNA vaccine or the anti-CTLA4 monoclonal antibody,” Sharma explains.

In the Genitourinary Center, she is the principal investigator on an early neoadjuvant clinical trial to evaluate immunological changes that occur in bladder cancer after treatment with anti-CTLA4 therapy. Sharma appreciates her time in the clinic because “caring for the patients drives my vision for more productive research.”

Sharma says being in the Physician-Scientist Program illustrates “this is truly the right time and the right place for immunotherapy to be developed to make a difference for patients with cancer.”

Full speed ahead

Bast says the program’s first 12 graduates are conducting outstanding research that already has been transferred to several clinical trials and used to design promising targeted therapies for many cancers. Another 13 junior faculty taking part in the program are focusing on multiple areas, including childhood cancers, surgery, laboratory medicine, leukemia, brain tumors and radiation therapy.

Guillermo Garcia-Manero, M.D., associate professor in the Department of Leukemia, credits the program with “helping move my research ahead at full speed” and obtaining four major grants to support studies that are leading to new approaches for patients with acute leukemia and myelodysplastic syndromes.

Born on the Spanish island of Majorca, Garcia-Manero received his medical degree from the University of Zaragoza in Spain. After postgraduate training from internship through his fellowship in hematology at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, he joined M. D. Anderson in 1999 and was accepted into the Physician-Scientist Program in 2002.

“I now spend about 75% of my time in the laboratory, trying to better understand and implement genetic information (known as DNA methylation patterns) to predict response to therapy. We have identified a number of genes that may be silenced in leukemia, and we hope to determine what they mean to patients’ prognoses,” explains Garcia-Manero, who has reported his research in more than 110 publications and at numerous conferences worldwide.

His analysis of the Physician-Scientist Program: “It was a phenomenal experience.”

Committing to education

The Physician-Scientist Program is funded primarily by donors. During the past year, more than 65 individuals and foundations contributed in excess of $1.1 million to support the program.

Major donors included Guerra Brothers Successors, Ltd., Mr. and Mrs. Ben Guill, the RGK Foundation, the Rockwell Fund, Inc., The Louis and Rachel Rudin Foundation, and The Gil and Dody Weaver Foundation. Nine M. D. Anderson senior faculty also contributed to the program.

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center