Lung Cancer Researcher Melissa Johnson, MD, Benefits From Father’s Perspective as Career Military Officer

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Lung cancer researcher Melissa Johnson, MD, is a self-described “military brat,” whose father was a career officer in the Marine Corps, serving for more than 35 years. She was born in Oklahoma City and moved nine times during her childhood. When Dr. Johnson was in high school, her father was stationed at the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps base in North Carolina.

Melissa Johnson, MD

Melissa Johnson, MD

“I was awarded a full 4-year Morehead-Cain Scholarship to attend the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill,” she shared. “My world at that point had been somewhat limited, and the scholarship was a terrific opportunity to broaden my horizons. The scholarship afforded summer internships as well as tuition and room and board, and through those experiences, I found that college was much more than just picking a major—for me it was also a springboard to self-discovery and personal growth.”

Introduction to Medicine

THE MOREHEAD-CAIN Scholarship is awarded to about 50 students each year, either self-nominated or nominated by their high schools, who come up through North Carolina’s public-school system, as well as out-of-state independent schools in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Not only is academic excellence part of the selection criteria, but also other attributes that form well-rounded students with leadership qualities. It was during one of her summer internships that Dr. Johnson met medical oncologist Robert Siegel, MD, at George Washington University. “I spent one summer shadowing noted oncologist Dr. Siegel and his colleagues. That summer internship was my introduction to medicine and oncology,” said Dr. Johnson.

She continued: “When I told my dad that I was considering becoming a doctor, he was supportive but also concerned that it required a huge amount of school before I’d be settled in a career. I wanted to show everyone that I was up to the commitment, and the internship with Dr. Siegel convinced me that the long commitment would be worth it.”

After receiving her undergraduate degree from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Dr. Johnson took a year off to work at the Morehead-Cain Foundation before entering medical school at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn). “The year I spent at the Morehead Foundation was a great grounding experience before entering medical school. I chose the University of Pennsylvania, in part because I was sort of a country mouse at the time. Although I wanted to have the city experience, UPenn was located in Philadelphia, which didn’t feel as intimidating as Chicago or New York,” Dr. Johnson admitted.

Researcher’s Career Begins

“WHILE AT UPENN, I worked in a cancer genomics lab run by Barbara Weber, MD. While working there, I realized how many career opportunities were available to oncologists in addition to taking care of patients, such as clinical research, which was very appealing to me,” added Dr. Johnson.

After receiving her medical degree from UPenn, Dr. Johnson chose to do her internal medicine residency at New York Presbyterian/ Weill Cornell Medical Center, largely because it was located in New York, as she was now ready for life in the big city. “I chose Weill Cornell also because it was near to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK). By the time I’d started my residency, I was pretty sure I wanted to be a clinical investigator and hoped I could get a fellowship at MSK.”

Fellowship in Oncology/Hematology

DR. JOHNSON described her internal medicine residency at Weill Cornell Medical Center as a valuable learning experience that further solidified her ambition to become a clinical investigator. Her career took shape when she was awarded a fellowship in medical oncology/hematology at MSK, where she served 1 year as chief fellow. “My job that year as chief fellow included scheduling fellows’ outpatient clinics and keeping the younger fellows in line. My dad didn’t understand the world of medicine, but as a military officer, he understood interpersonal dynamics so well that I could use him as a sounding board of sorts. I often asked for his guidance when I had a tricky issue to solve. Being a physician leader doesn’t exactly come with a handbook; there actually is more instruction in the military about how to be effectively in charge of others—and I was glad to find a way to learn more about my father as a professional during those years,” said Dr. Johnson.

“I’m very grateful for my 4 years at Northwestern. I learned to build a busy clinical practice—which is an important foundation for any clinical investigator.”
— Melissa Johnson, MD

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Based on her experiences prior to her fellowship, Dr. Johnson thought she was going to become a breast oncologist; however, early in her fellowship, she changed her mind to study lung cancer instead. She stressed that the career guidance and support she received from many of the thoracic oncologists at MSK led her to choose her professional path. “During my fellowship at MSK, I met Mark Kris, MD, and Naiyer Rizvi, MD, who shared my love of running and dining out. Also in the thoracic department at the time were others such as Christopher (Jerry) Azzoli, MD; Lee Krug, MD; and Gregory Riely, MD—it was an amazing group of talented physicians who took great care of patients and enjoyed life. In addition, some new lung cancer markers were discovered before and during my fellowship, such as epidermal growth factor receptor and anaplastic lymphoma kinase, which often occurrs in never-smokers. I understood the basics of genomics because of my work at UPenn. As more and more tyrosine kinase inhibitors were developed, which offered effective treatment options for these patients, I knew I had found my niche,” said Dr. Johnson.

Following her fellowship at MSK, Dr. Johnson moved to Chicago. She spent 4 years as a faculty member at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University and Feinberg School of Medicine, where she was a founding member of the Northwestern Medical Developmental Therapeutics Institute. “I’m very grateful for my 4 years at Northwestern. I learned to build a busy clinical practice—which is an important foundation for any clinical investigator.”

Positive Signs for Future of Lung Cancer Treatment

DR. JOHNSON joined Sarah Cannon Research Institute at Tennessee Oncology in 2014, where she serves as Associate Director of Lung Cancer Research. Her primary responsibilities include supporting the growth of a phase II and III lung cancer clinical trial portfolio. She is also responsible for advancing the development of early-phase compounds for thoracic cancers in the Drug Development Unit.

“I see patients in the Drug Development Unit, so it’s mostly patients with refractory lung cancer on phase I studies. It is exciting to be able to administer the first drug in a class to a patient in the first-in-human trial; if we are going to make significant inroads in this disease, efficient phase I trials are crucial,” said Dr. Johnson. “I’m very lucky to work for and learn from Skip Burris, MD, and David Spigel, MD, at Sarah Cannon. They epitomize physician leadership and have continued to broaden my perspective about what professional roles we can hold as oncologists. Working at Sarah Cannon has also taught me the importance of making clinical research accessible outside of academic centers, in order to reach the communities where the majority of patients with cancer are being treated.”

Asked for a closing remark or two on the current and future state of lung cancer research and treatment, Dr. Johnson responded, “Lung cancer is such an exciting field. With the development of targeted therapies for oncogene-driven cancers and the new successes in immunotherapy, we have successful treatment options for never-smokers as well as smokers alike, and this is something that has happened over the course of my career.”

She continued: “All patients will eventually develop resistance to these agents, and my passion these days is to try to identify patterns to link up the right pattern of acquired resistance to immune therapies with novel checkpoint inhibitors. We’ve seen an explosion of regulatory approvals for agents that continue to advance our ability to treat lung cancers. There will be more advances to improve outcomes for our patients. There is a lot to be hopeful about.”

What does the super busy lung cancer researcher do to decompress? “No matter what kind of day I’ve had at the lab, I always look forward to going home to my husband and daughter (age 5). Being with them helps me decompress, and I feel very lucky to have my family. And I still love to run.”

DISCLOSURE: Dr. Johnson is a consultant/advisor (honoraria to institution) with AstraZeneca, Genentech/Roche, Celgene, and Boehringer Ingelheim; has received institutional research funding from Pfizer, Guardant Health, OncoMed, BerGenBio, Lilly, EMD Serono, Kadmon, Janssen, Mirati Therapeutics, Hengrui Pharmaceutical, Lycera, BeiGene, Tarveda Therapeutics, Loxo, AbbVie, Boehringer Ingelheim, Foundation Medicine, Daiichi Sankyo, Sanofi, Mersana, Checkpoint Therapeutics, Array BioPharma, Regeneron, Merck, Genmab, AstraZeneca, Stemcentrx, and Novartis; and an immediate family member is a consultant/advisor with Astellas Pharma and Otsuka.