Early Love of Science and Famous Mentor Paved the Way for Gwen L. Nichols, MD, in Hematologic Cancer

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Nationally regarded leukemia and lymphoma specialist Gwen L. Nichols, MD, was born in the Bronx, New York, and when she became of school age, her parents moved to the upstate suburb of Chappaqua, where she grew up. Asked if there were any physicians in her family who might have influenced her decision to pursue a career in medicine, Dr. Nichols replied: “There were no doctors in the family. My mother was a Rockette at Radio City Music Hall, and when I was at Horace Greeley High School, she got a doctorate in kinesiology. So I had a lot of physiology talk around the house while I was growing up. However, I fell in love with biology early on in high school and decided to pursue a career in science, due in part to a wonderful biology teacher who made the experience so exciting.”

Lab Research Called

After high school, Dr. Nichols entered Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. “I had a wonderful professor who allowed me to do research in his lab, and he told me that if I wanted to do research on humans, I should go to medical school. Until then, I’d never once thought about attending medical school.”

After graduating in 1979, cum laude in biology, Dr. Nichols entered medical school at the State University of New York at Buffalo. “When I first entered medical school, I still hadn’t decided to become a doctor. My goal was a career in laboratory science. But early on I became fulfilled with patient care. Moreover, it was interesting and I thought I’d be good at it. At that point, I began exploring what careers in translational medicine, doing both research and patient care, were out there.”

She continued: “I decided to do an internship in internal medicine because I thought it offered the most exciting research opportunities. However, the young feminist in me thought I should become a surgeon, but surgery didn’t have the same research appeal that medicine did.”

One Word From a Mentor

In 1983, Dr. Nichols began her internship at the University of Chicago. “I was new to Chicago and didn’t know a soul in the city. I did my first month of internship on the leukemia service with Dr. Harvey Golomb. Harvey had three patients with hairy cell leukemia on clinical trial who were getting interferon to see whether there was any efficacy in this deadly disease. On top of leukemia, two had Legionnaires’ disease, which was very new at that time. So I spent about a month caring for these patients who had rare cancer and a rare infectious disease. At the end of the month, Harvey asked me down to his office for a review. He gave me a soda, and it was sort of like Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, but instead of saying “plastics” Harvey said “hem-onc.” He told me he knew it was a hard discipline, but he said I was cut out for it, and that was the beginning of my career.”

AML is one disease we think needs particular attention, since there have been far too few advances in this disease over the past 40 years.
— Gwen L. Nichols, MD

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Dr. Nichols stressed that along with Dr. Golomb’s encouragement and confidence in her ability, her attendings at the University of Chicago were a world-class group of oncologists whose mentorship further solidified her passion for a career in hematology/oncology. In 1986, Dr. Nichols began her hematology/oncology fellowship at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (Memorial).

“This was the time when Dr. Ray Warrell was doing research on all-trans retinoic acid for treatment for acute promyelocytic leukemia, which was truly miraculous. It kept patients from bleeding to death. And being at another cutting-edge moment in oncology further convinced me I needed to be involved in research as well as patient care,” shared Dr. Nichols.

To the end, Dr. Nichols remained at Memorial after her fellowship to do postdoctoral training in the center’s Flomenberg Laboratory from 1990 to 1992 and then advanced studies at the Golde Laboratory from 1992 to 1994. After about 10 years in the lab, Dr. Nichols was recruited to become Assistant Professor of Medicine at Columbia University.

“I was offered my own laboratory as well as a professorship, so I accepted the offer from Columbia. It not only gave me the opportunity to do my own research, but the teaching aspect of the position was very rewarding. Plus, I saw patients, so it was a well-rounded experience that gave me insight into translational medicine. I actually ran into a couple of my fellows and residents a few years ago at the ASCO Annual Meeting. They were at a table together and told me I was instrumental in their decision to pursue oncology, which was one of the happiest moments in my career,” said Dr. Nichols.

One More Career Move, Maybe Two

During an inflection point at Columbia, Dr. Nichols decided she probably had one more move in her career, and she began exploring opportunities, finding an interesting opportunity in 2007 at Roche Pharmaceuticals in translational research that helped usher compounds into clinical trials. “At the onset, I was concerned about entering pharma. As an academic doctor, you get a little jaded about how the pharma world works. I was afraid I’d be in a very restrictive environment with little freedom of thought, but as it turned out, I found it to be the opposite, in that the early drug development environment was very creative. It was also a great learning experience about the R&D process and the complex journey new compounds take through the regulatory system,” Dr. Nichols revealed.

As a translational researcher, I’m a firm believer in clinical trials. It’s really the only way that exciting new compounds can make their way into patient care.
— Gwen L. Nichols, MD

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Dr. Nichols summed up her time at Roche as a rich and rewarding experience that bolstered her resume for a new and unexpected career opportunity that came her way. “I had planned on ending my career at Roche until Lee Greenberger, PhD, who was Chief Scientific Officer at The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, e-mailed me. He was looking for scientists and told me Louis DeGennaro, PhD, President and Chief Executive Officer at The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, was looking for a Chief Medical Officer at The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and wondered if I could suggest someone. I’d worked with Lee on a joint Roche–Leukemia & Lymphoma Society clinical trial project, so I knew him. I looked at the breadth of the society’s efforts in research, clinical trials, patient care, education, and policy work and thought it dovetailed perfectly with the arc of my career. So I applied and was very excited to be offered the position.”

At The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Dr. -Nichols plays a key role in advancing its goal to help find cures and ensure access to high-value treatments for all patients with blood cancer. She is also responsible for overseeing The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s scientific research portfolio, patient support and education services, and policy and advocacy initiatives. Asked to highlight a current initiative, Dr. Nichols commented: “The rising cost of cancer care is a deep concern to the oncology community, and The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society has just released a policy recommendation paper on reducing costs. The recommendations are for multiple stakeholder groups, including patient organizations, drug makers, payers and providers, and policymakers. It’s important to note the cost of cancer care shouldn’t be attributed to a single stakeholder, nor should we look at a single stakeholder to carry the entire burden of reform,” suggested Dr. Nichols.

The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society: Leading the Way in AML

Asked about particular focal points in The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s mission to help cure blood cancers Dr. Nichols said, “We are in an exciting era in which we can look with precision at a patient’s molecular markers, not just the specific disease such as acute myeloid leukemia (AML) or acute lymphoblastic leukemia. This allows us to use the right combination and sequence of therapies for that patient to maximize the benefit.”

She continued: “There are many unmet needs that we focus on but AML is one disease we at The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society think needs particular attention, since there have been far too few advances in this disease over the past 40 years. We are excited to have launched the Beat AML Master Trial, which is a collaborative clinical trial that will test several novel targeted therapies in AML. This trial is an attempt to look at AML based on tumor subtype and genetic mutations driving the disease. It’s not an easy process, but we hope it will help move things forward in this difficult disease.”

Another unmet need in oncology treatment and research is poor accrual for adult clinical trials, an issue The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society takes to heart. “As a translational researcher, I’m a firm believer in clinical trials. It’s really the only way that exciting new compounds can make their way into patient care. The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society has a very thorough clinical trials support center that offers patients one-on-one support and guidance in finding trials and throughout the clinical trial experience. It is truly a terrific service for our cancer patients, one that’s important to share with the The ASCO Post readership,” said Dr. Nichols. ■

Disclosure: Dr. Nichols reported no conflicts of interest.