Participating in ‘Tremendous Progress’ in Hematologic Oncology, From Chernobyl to Stem Cell Transplantation

A Conversation With Richard E. Champlin, MD

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Richard E. Champlin, MD, Chairman of the nation’s largest Stem Cell Transplantation and Cellular Therapy program at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, was born in Milwaukee and spent his formative years in Chicago. After high school, Dr. Champlin followed an early ambition in engineering, entering Purdue University in Indiana in 1971, where he earned a BS in engineering sciences.

Richard E. Champlin, MD

Richard E. Champlin, MD

“During my time at Purdue, I also became interested in psychology and psychiatry, which eventually led to my decision to pursue a medical degree at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine,” said Dr. Champlin. Shortly into his journey through medical school, he became interested in leukemia and cancer treatment, which would remain the focus of his career.

Drawn by a Bigger Impact

Asked about the radical shift from majoring in engineering and moving to oncology, Dr. Champlin said: “My father, who was somewhat of a meddler, influenced my decisions. I’d always been interested in engineering when I was in grade school, but during med school, I worked one summer at an outpatient drug addiction clinic. That experience began steering my interest toward medicine. But, as I was introduced to the field of hematology and oncology, I ultimately felt it offered me a chance to make a bigger impact on patient care and health outcomes as a whole.”

Responding to the Chernobyl Disaster

In 1975, Dr. Champlin did his internship and residency at UCLA School of Medicine in Los Angeles, where his interest in hematology/oncology intensified. Following his residency, Dr. Champlin began his fellowship at the UCLA Center for Health Sciences, where he worked with bone marrow transplantation expert, Robert Peter Gale, MD, PhD, DSc (hs), who was on the faculty in the Department of Medicine, Division of Hematology and Oncology, where he focused on the molecular biology, immunology, and treatment of leukemia. Dr. Champlin specialized in bone marrow transplantation and ultimately was appointed the Director of the UCLA program and successfully competed for a POl grant from the National Cancer Institute.

In 1986, during the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, ­Armand Hammer facilitated for Dr. Gale, Dr. ­Champlin, and two other specialists to volunteer to do bone marrow transplants for the victims of radiation poisoning, and he flew to Moscow shortly after the tragic meltdown.

“The Soviets lacked equipment, such as the heavy-­duty needles designed for extracting bone marrow from donors,” he added. “We packed up what supplies we could and were on the 3:00 PM flight to Moscow to treat victims of the worst nuclear disaster in history.”

In an article Dr. Champlin wrote in the Los Angeles Times, he stressed that the collaborative efforts that he and the team from the United States made with the Soviet physicians and technicians clearly benefited the victims of the nuclear accident and stand as a legacy of which he is proud.

Leading the Transplantation Field

“In 1990, I moved to MD Anderson Cancer Center, where I’ve been Chairman, Department of Stem Cell Transplantation and Cellular Therapy ever since. We currently do about 750 transplants per year, which is the largest program in the nation. I direct the clinical, research, and educations programs,” said Dr. Champlin.

He continued: “Over the arc of my career, I’ve been fortunate to witness and take part in tremendous progress. When I began as a fellow at UCLA in 1978, the majority of transplant patients died of complications either of the transplant procedure or their leukemia. Today, however, we see the role of stem cell transplants as a curative measure. Not only are we seeing vastly improved outcomes, but we can also see increased access to this therapy. Moreover, not only have we seen dramatic improvement in treating the malignancies, but also in supportive care, which prevent deaths from infections and graft-vs-host disease.”

Advances and Promise Ahead

Dr. Champlin commented about how rewarding it has been to witness the development of so many exciting targeted therapies over the past decade. “The emergence of cellular immune therapies is a promising development in our ability to target disease on a molecular level, such as chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapy,” he continued.

“In the field of stem cell transplantation, we’ve been able to treat older patients, up to age 75, very successfully, which is a huge step forward,” he stated. “A large part of this advance in treating older patients has been the introduction of posttransplant cyclophosphamide, which has produced a remarkable reduction in the incidence of severe acute and chronic graft-vs-host disease, and the introduction of graft engineering techniques to remove the T cells that produce graft-vs-host disease without impairing the function of the transplant.”

Dr. Champlin added there is still a lot of work left to be done, but there has been incredible progress with stem cell transplantation as successful treatment of otherwise incurable malignancies and blood disorders. “We’ve made major advances that have changed the international standards of care,” he commented.

Dr. Champlin has published widely on leukemia and stem cell transplantation and has received numerous awards, among them the ASBMT Lifetime Achievement Award, Waun Ki Hong Award for Excellence in Team Science, the Robert C. Hickey Chair in Clinical Cancer Care, the Giannini Foundation Fellowship, and the G.A. Ross Scholarship Award. He was recently named a Fellow of the American Society of Transplantation and Cellular Therapy.

What does an internationally renowned transplant specialist do to decompress from the rigors of a challenging career? “I play golf,” declared Dr. Champlin. “When you’re looking down at a golf ball, getting ready to swing, it’s about the only thing you can concentrate on if you want to hit it with any amount of success.” 

DISCLOSURE: Dr. Champlin reported no conflicts of interest.