It’s important for us in the community to manage expectations and our first step is to turn myeloma into a chronic illness, [which] has been done in many patients. We have maintenance therapies that are starting to look effective. Once we have the right combination of therapies starting early enough then I do think we will be able to have molecularly complete responses.
—Kenneth C. Anderson, MD
Kenneth C. Anderson, MD, grew up in Auburn, a small historic town in central Massachusetts that was settled by the English in 1714. His desire to become a doctor bloomed early. “My decision to possibly pursue a career in medicine was first inspired by my mother, who was a registered nurse, and by our town’s general practitioner, who befriended me,” said Dr. Anderson.
Dr. Anderson explained that his keen childhood interest in science coupled with a desire to use science to help better human conditions was the driving force in his decision to pursue a medical career. His initial plan was to follow in his early mentor’s footsteps and practice family medicine in a small town similar to Auburn. It was in that setting that he felt he could best make a difference in the lives of his patients.
Dr. Anderson was the first member of his family to earn a college degree. After graduating high school in Auburn, he attended Boston University, majoring in biology. “I discovered that along with my excitement over science, I actually had quite a bit of natural ability in the discipline. Simply put, I just loved the discovery aspect of experimentation in the laboratory,” said Dr. Anderson.
While studying at Boston University, Dr. Anderson volunteered as an orderly in the local hospitals’ emergency rooms. “From the start, I thoroughly enjoyed my experiences working in the hospital setting. It further strengthened my idea that I could pursue science and have it translate into treatments that benefited patient’s lives,” said Dr. Anderson.
A Career Transformed
Following his graduation from Boston University in 1973, Dr. Anderson said that he was “blessed” to be able to attend Johns Hopkins Medical School, which was a major turning point in his career. “At Hopkins, I was very fortunate to meet Dr. Richard L. Humphrey, who was one of my early teachers and ultimately became my major mentor and role model. He remains a close friend to this day,” said Dr. Anderson.
“At the time, Dr. Humphrey was working on multiple myeloma and he taught me two lessons during my very first year of medical school that are still at the forefront of my academic life to this day: to make science count for patients and to treat patients as family,” noted Dr. Anderson.
He continued, “Upon entering Hopkins my intention was to become a general practitioner in a small town, but learning about the joy of academic medicine in which laboratory experimentation could lead to new discoveries and ultimately improve the diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment of people with life-threatening diseases transformed my career decision,” said Dr. Anderson. He explained that before the Johns Hopkins experience, he didn’t have a true appreciation of how one could really undertake science, conduct clinical trials, and forever change things.
After receiving his medical degree from Johns Hopkins Medical School in 1977, Dr. Anderson trained in internal medicine at Johns Hopkins Hospital and completed his hematology, medical oncology, and tumor immunology training at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. He has remained at Dana-Farber to this day.
Groundbreaking Research in Multiple Myeloma
It was at Dana-Farber where Dr. Anderson began in earnest his career in multiple myeloma and developed a research program that has been involved in most of the advances in the treatment of multiple myeloma. “It is very exciting to have contributed and watched the natural history of a disease change. I have been working on multiple myeloma for about 40 years, and the progress has been nothing short of remarkable. When I began my work, multiple myeloma was virtually untreatable. Patients now live, on average, a decade longer postdiagnosis, with many living much longer,” said Dr. Anderson.
Dr. Anderson explained that the advances have stemmed not only from knowledge of the genomics and molecular biology of the tumor cell itself, but also from the importance of the microenvironment and the means by which the tumor interacts with the microenvironment. Asked what aspect of multiple myeloma research he finds particularly exciting, Dr. Anderson replied, “In myeloma, we are privileged in that we can sample a patient’s bone marrow and tumor cells and from there create models in the laboratory. This gives us the opportunity to see how it grows in patients, letting us study the tumor and microenvironment, which is much more difficult to do in other cancers such as breast and brain malignancies.”
‘The United Nations Against Myeloma’
Dr. Anderson is internationally recognized for his research that has changed the human landscape of this once untreatable disease. However, recalling the early lessons from his mentor and friend, Dr. Richard L. Humphrey, the multitude of prestigious awards and accolades from colleagues are appreciated, but the true satisfaction comes from what his decades of research means to his patients. “The ability to take laboratory observations and translate them into meaningful differences for patients is incredibly rewarding. Getting to know my patients and their families and watching them enjoy milestones in their lives such as graduations or weddings is what makes what I do special to me,” said Dr. Anderson.
Besides his ongoing research, Dr. Anderson eagerly approaches the challenge and rewards of mentoring the next generation of cancer doctors. “I have trainees from all over the United States and the rest of the world, many of whom are going back to their homelands to be leaders of hematology. We’ve actually gained the nickname ‘The United Nations Against Myeloma.’ Once they finish their training at Dana-Farber, many of these bright young doctors go around the world from South America to Europe and Asia, becoming leaders in myeloma research. Thanks to these shared experiences, we’ve developed international clinical trial collaborations and lifelong friendships. So, I’m watching the next generation of international clinicians being trained and at the same time I’m witnessing the history of this disease change. It doesn’t get any more rewarding than that!”
Asked if he thinks he’ll see a cure for multiple myeloma over the course of his career Dr. Anderson sounded an optimistic but cautionary note. “Let me say that it’s important for us in the community to manage expectations, and our first step is to turn myeloma into a chronic illness. I think it has been done in many patients. We have maintenance therapies that are starting to look effective. Once we have the right combination of therapies starting early enough then I do think we will be able to have molecularly complete responses. It will then be a case of maintaining them,” said Dr. Anderson.
What current challenges or obstacles concern Dr. Anderson? “I think the main obstacle in the current environment is a dangerous lack of federal funding to promote the vigorous research needed if we want to not only continue the pace of our scientific advances but accelerate them,” said Dr. Anderson. He commented that another unfortunate byproduct of our fiscal malaise in funding is the chilling effect it might have on recruiting the best and brightest into academic oncology.
Those obstacles aside, Dr. Anderson remains a committed optimist. “I am very thankful for the opportunities and extraordinary colleagues I’ve worked with. Besides your own family legacy, what really matters is what you have done in your time to make the world different. In that spirit, I would encourage bright young medical students to think about pursuing oncology. Despite some challenges, it offers the chance to truly help the sickest of our patients and conduct research that changes the history of this disease,” he said.
Dr. Anderson’s remarkable research career and clinical contributions to patients with multiple myeloma have unquestionably changed the way we think and speak of this once untreatable disease. And after 40 rigorous years, his commitment to using science to better the lives of cancer patients is unflagging. Asked if he enjoyed any avocations or pastimes, Dr. Anderson replied, “Sports. I’m an avid golfer and I enjoy family golf outings. And I love football and baseball. I’m a Red Sox fan, of course.” ■