There’s a reason Mayo Clinic oncologist Alex A. Adjei, M.D., Ph.D., spends so much time in the lab testing molecular solutions to cancer — it gives his patients hope.
When Dr. Adjei started as a lung cancer specialist about 20 years ago, patients with the disease had a dismal prognosis. There was basically one treatment option, and if that didn’t work — and it usually didn’t — there was little else he could do.
“When I started in ’95, of my first 20 lung cancer patients, nobody had any tumor shrinkage,” Dr. Adjei recalls. “All they did was lose hair and lose weight. None lived a year. It was so depressing. But now I have patients with metastatic lung cancer who I’ve been taking care of since 2009 and 2010. Now the vast majority of metastatic lung cancer patients are living 2 years or more.”
Dr. Adjei recently returned to Mayo Clinic (after starting his career here, he spent 9 years at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo) to develop even better options for people with cancer. In his new role he’ll help lead the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center’s Early Therapeutics Program.
The program involves first-in-human trials testing new cutting-edge treatments for patients with a variety of cancers for whom no life-prolonging treatments exist. This is a critical step in the development of all new promising treatments for cancer. As medical director of this program, Dr. Adjei will help build an enterprise-wide cohesive program, making these promising treatments available to all Mayo patients with all type of cancers across its centers in Minnesota, Florida and Arizona.
Dr. Adjei says this kind of work gives patients hope, which changes the way they face their disease.
“You may not always change how long they will live with the disease,” he says. “But it’s amazing how people react when they are told we can try something. People feel better that they aren’t just waiting to die, but they are trying something, they are fighting. I strive to not mislead a patient but also not to take away hope. I don’t want to take away hope completely because people don’t do well in that situation.”
And he’s just as hopeful. He talks about one patient who came to him with stage IV lung cancer in 2000. He enrolled her in a clinical trial testing a new drug. The drug failed the trial and was never approved. But for her, and only her, it worked. She’s still alive today.
“That kind of situation is certainly not common,” Dr. Adjei says. “And going in, we know the chances of survival may be really, really small. But they aren’t zero. And that gives patients, and me, hope.”
This article, part of the "Meet the Researcher" series, originally appeared in Forefront, Mayo Clinic Cancer Center's magazine.
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