Physican-Scientist Anirban Maitra brings leading expertise and passion for results to pancreatic cancer research leadership role at UT MD Anderson

Cancer center appoints first scientific director and co-director of the Sheikh Ahmed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Center for Pancreatic Cancer Research

MD Anderson News Release 04/04/13

Anirban Maitra, M.B.B.S., a pre-eminent expert in the genetics of pancreatic cancer and the development of targeted therapies for the disease, will lead research at a new center at The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center devoted to this highly lethal cancer.

Maitra becomes co-director and scientific director of the Sheikh Ahmed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Center for Pancreatic Cancer Research on Aug. 1, bringing his passion for improving patients’ survival by discovering and developing ways to detect and treat pancreatic cancer to Houston.  

“It’s a revolutionary time to be at MD Anderson if you’re a cancer researcher,” Maitra said. “There are so many positive things happening at the institution, from recruitment of star faculty to the Moon Shots Program and just the ability to do cutting-edge, mission-driven science.

“The pancreatic cancer research center by itself is an incredible opportunity to build one of the best, well-rounded pancreatic cancer groups in the country, bringing MD Anderson basic scientists, oncologists, surgeons, radiologists and pathologists under a single umbrella,” Maitra said. “Integrated, multidisciplinary research and patient care will allow MD Anderson to become the vanguard place for pancreatic cancer treatment and research.”

Maitra comes to MD Anderson from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, where he’s a professor of Pathology and Oncology at the Sol Goldman Pancreatic Cancer Research Center, as well as an affiliate faculty member of the McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine.

“As a consummate physician-scientist, Anirban Maitra has impacted on our fundamental understanding of pancreas cancer and has translated such knowledge into clinical trials,” MD Anderson President Ron DePinho, M.D., said. “He is a gifted leader and team builder who will enable MD Anderson to harness its maximal potential in pancreas cancer.”

The pancreatic cancer research center is funded by a $150 million grant from the Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Foundation, the largest ever received by MD Anderson, made in honor of the founder and late president of the United Arab Emirates and his sons. The grant also established the Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Institute for Personalized Cancer Therapy and made possible the Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Building for Personalized Cancer Care, presently under construction.

Dedicated to translating lab research to help patients

Maitra also will be deputy division head for academic science in MD Anderson’s Division of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine as well as a professor in the Departments of Pathology and Translational Molecular Pathology.

“Dr. Maitra is an internationally recognized expert in pancreatic cancer,” said James Abbruzzese, M.D., director of the pancreatic research center and chair of MD Anderson’s Department of Gastrointestinal Medical Oncology.
“As a pathologist and laboratory investigator we look forward to his active leadership in the pancreas program and we’re particularly excited about his passion to see concepts from the laboratory applied to our patients in an effort to improve outcome,” Abbruzzese said.

Treating cancer of the pancreas is an antidote for hubris, Maitra noted.  “This is a very humbling disease, with almost uniform mortality,” Maitra said.  About 5 percent of patients survive for five years.  An estimated 45,220 adults will receive a pancreatic cancer diagnosis in 2013 and 38,460 will die from the disease, according to the National Cancer Institute.

‘We want to do the best, science-driven clinical trials’

“There is so much to be done in this disease, so many people who get it die so quickly,” Maitra said. There’s currently no reliable way to diagnose pancreatic cancer early, he noted, so 80 percent of patients have inoperable disease at diagnosis and available drugs have a modest effect.  “We need to discover this disease earlier.”

An integral part of the research team that has uncovered what he calls “the mutational landscapes” of pancreatic cancer during the last decade, Maitra also develops biologically relevant animal models of the disease that lead to clinical trials of new approaches.

He also investigates developmental molecular networks, such as the Notch and Hedgehog signaling pathways that predominantly function during embryonic development but are abnormally reactivated in adult cells. His research led to one of the first clinical trials for a Hedgehog inhibitor in pancreatic cancer.

“We always need to remember that what we do in the lab or with animal models needs to end up in patients.  It’s not about an elegant experiment performed on mice and an excellent scientific publication, it’s all about translation, translation, translation,” Maitra said.

“I’m delighted to have someone as enlightened as Jim Abbruzzese as director and clinical leader of the center,” Maitra said.  “We want to do the best science-driven clinical trials and a lot of that will come from the science, but science has to be talking continuously with the clinic. The center framework will make this much easier to do.”

Maitra earned his medical degree in New Delhi at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.  He completed a residency in anatomic pathology at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, where he also obtained fellowship training in molecular and pediatric pathology. He then completed a clinical/research fellowship in gastrointestinal and liver pathology at Johns Hopkins and later joined the faculty in 2002, where he rose quickly through the academic ranks and was promoted to professor in 2010.

Mentor to award-winning teen scientist

His collaborative and mentorship skills yielded a surprising result last year, when 15-year-old Jack Andraka won the grand prize at the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for an innovative pancreatic cancer detection tool he developed in Maitra’s lab at Johns Hopkins.

Andraka drew up a research protocol for his idea and emailed 200 scientists.  Only Maitra answered.

“Jack Andraka is fabulous. I’ve been delighted and honored to have him in my lab,” Maitra said. “He sent me a nice write up on his lab plans and research, very interesting coming from a 15-year-old boy.  You’ve got to be able to give people a chance.  I’m fortunate to have answered his email.”