The Cancer Buster
John P. Leonard, MD
Richard T. Silver Distinguished Professor of Hematology and Medical Oncology
And Associate Dean for Clinical Research, The Weill Cornell Medical College
Many people hope for a world where we can turn off the genes that cause disease with a simple injection or treat cancers with drugs that have instant efficacy and no side effects. Right now, that’s science fiction, but Pelham’s John P. Leonard, MD, associate dean for Clinical Research and a professor at The Weill Cornell Medical College in Manhattan, is doing what he can to make it a reality.
A hematologist and oncologist who studies lymphoma and works with patients who have it, Dr. Leonard has focused his research on the question of why different people who ostensibly have the same disease might have vastly different responses to treatment or outcomes. His goal is to “personalize” medicine—to identify which factors cause those differences and use them to improve treatment and decrease side effects on a case-by-case basis.
“We used to think there was one type of lymphoma,” Dr. Leonard, 48, says. “Now there are sixty. Why does one patient do better and one patient do worse? Clearly, they’re not the same disease, even though we label them the same.”
So, in addition to his clinical and oversight work, he’s researching innovative techniques like monoclonal antibodies, which are produced in a lab and can deliver treatment directly to cancer cells instead of all cells at once; epigenetic therapies, which turn off the genes that make cells become cancerous; and new imaging techniques that allow doctors to monitor their patients’ malignancies and evaluate the effectiveness of treatment in real time rather than having to rely on before-and-after pictures. These endeavors have led to the development of several drugs that have passed through the arduous approval process of the US Food and Drug Administration and are now standard therapies.
But he’s not just working on lymphoma. “What you learn in leukemia and lymphoma can be translated to breast cancer, other cancers, and even non-malignant diseases,” says Dr. Leonard. “The same lymphoma antibodies are now treating rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases.”
“Over the past decade, John has played a pivotal role in developing novel treatment strategies for patients with lymphoma,” says Jonathan W. Friedberg, MD, who is chief of the Hematology/Oncology Division, acting director of the James P. Wilmot Cancer Center in Rochester, New York, and a professor of Medicine and Oncology at the University of Rochester. “John is, without question, one of the top ten lymphoma specialists in the United States.”
As if that weren’t enough, Dr. Leonard is trying to make sure that research in the US improves overall, and much of his work on the board of the White Plains-based Leukemia & Lymphoma Society is aimed at getting out the word about the opportunities for everyday people to help medicine. “Across the country, only about two percent of patients go into clinical trials,” he explains. “It’s a tragedy. So many patients are dealing with life-threatening disorders, and very few of them participate in clinical trials. Any time a patient goes into an exam room with a doctor and the doctor says, ‘Here’s your prognosis; here’s your treatment,’ it’s because of clinical trials. So there are opportunities out there for patients not only to contribute [to medicine] but to potentially do better for themselves.”
Despite the difficulties, he’s excited about the future. “We’re at the point of a revolution. We can identify the basis of many diseases at the molecular level and identify groups of patients that can be treated. We will end up with a lot more drugs. We’ve helped to give patients new options. There’s a tremendous amount of progress, and I’m excited to be a part of it.”