Multitude of Mentors Help Shape an Illustrious Career in Oncology

A Conversation With Sumanta K. Pal, MD

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Sumanta K. Pal, MD

Sumanta K. Pal, MD

Sumanta K. Pal, MD, has had a longer career in oncology than many other colleagues his age. Perhaps the reason for that may center on his starting college at the age 13 and medical school at the age of 17. Today this internationally recognized leader in genitourinary cancers is Assistant Professor and Co-Director of the Kidney Cancer Program at the City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center in Duarte, California. Dr. Pal is also head of the kidney and bladder cancer disease team at the institution. An author of more than 150 peer-reviewed articles, Dr. Pal holds patents for new drugs currently under development in prostate cancer and reportedly also maintains one of the largest portfolios of clinical trials for kidney and bladder cancer research on the West Coast.

The ASCO Post recently talked with Dr. Pal about his early start in medical school, the host of mentors who helped to shape his career while providing moral support, and his diverse research endeavors in therapeutics for prostate and kidney cancers.

Medical School at 17

Please tell the readers about your early life and whether there were any persons or events that influenced your decision to pursue a career in medicine.

My decision to enter medicine was a pragmatic one made by a nervous 13-year-old. It was at that age that I entered college at California State University, Los Angeles, a path largely navigated by my father. It was a shock to the system when he passed away of a sudden heart attack during my first semester. With his departure, I sought medicine as a career path that would always be in demand and provide sufficient resources to care for my mother and younger sister.

You won’t find a bigger champion of City of Hope than me. My positive feelings for the campus have a lot to do with our outstanding leadership. Their support and enthusiasm trickle down to virtually every employee.
— Sumanta K. Pal, MD

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Truthfully, it was only after I began my clinical rotations in medical school that I found my real passion for the field. After starting medical school at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), at the age of 17, I have vivid memories of the oncology service there, which I experienced as a third-year student. I participated in lots of heartfelt end-of-life conversations back then, which made me realize there were many struggles far more challenging than my own—Those experiences took my nose out of books and prompted me to focus on developing into a well-rounded clinician.

A Host of Mentors

Could you describe your education, including any mentors who influenced your decision to become an oncologist?

My answer to this question might read like an Academy Award acceptance speech. I have more than a dozen mentors who shaped my career very early on. As a UCLA resident, I worked closely with Dr. Mark Pegram (now at Stanford). His work in HER2-positive breast cancer was nothing short of transformative, but you would never know of his accolades by talking to him. He was incredibly humble and generous and gave me my first opportunities to write.

When I began my fellowship at City of Hope, I latched onto a different mentor, Dr. Robert Figlin (now at Cedars-Sinai). Bob remains a pioneering figure in kidney cancer therapy. He played a key role in validating the previous generation of cytokine therapies (interleukin-2 and interferon) and drove the introduction of targeted therapies. Candidly, he was a tough mentor; he never let me slide with a paper or grant application that was anything less than perfect. Years later, I am grateful for this approach.

When he left City of Hope, I was at a real crossroads—I had just started as junior faculty and was trying to jump-start a small genitourinary cancers program. I leaned heavily on the genitourinary community at that point and in the process found numerous mentors outside my institution. I would cite two in particular as being critical to my academic development. One is Dr. Nick Vogelzang at US Oncology. Like Bob, he had an illustrious career that helped define the treatment of kidney cancer, mesothelioma, prostate cancer, and several other diseases. Nick was always a phone call away and gave me great guidance in helping to launch some key trials through the Southwest Oncology Group and other vehicles.

The second is Dr. Toni Choueiri at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Don’t be fooled by Toni’s youth—He’s only a couple of years older than me (I’m 35) but has already done more in his career than many have done in a lifetime. What makes him stand out is his commitment to junior faculty. I’m on the phone with him about every other day, getting advice on both the minutiae that drive my day-to-day practice and the big-picture issues that drive my career.

‘One of the Coolest Moments of My Career’

Please take the readers through your internship and residency.

Internship and residency were grueling, no way around it. I remember the work-hour restrictions for residents were introduced just after I got through—a disappointing feeling to say the least. By the time I hit internship, I was fairly committed to oncology. I remember spending the narrow windows between shifts holed up in Mark Pegram’s lab, studying in vitro breast cancer models. He took a big risk putting an overcommitted resident on a fairly intensive lab-based project.

In the end, his faith in me drove me to complete the project. I remember presenting our results in an oral session at the AACR [American Association of Cancer Research] Annual Meeting in 2005—to this day one of the coolest moments of my career. I remember UCLA also being a hot spot for multiple new therapies. In addition to everything Mark Pegram and his colleagues were doing in HER2-positive breast cancer, Dr. Charles Sawyers and others at UCLA were doing seminal work in chronic myelogenous leukemia and prostate cancer. The Sawyers’ lab played a big role in bringing agents such as imatinib and enzalutamide [Xtandi] to the clinic—Witnessing the clinical translation of his work first-hand was incredibly invigorating.

Champion of City of Hope

As a follow-up, tell the readers about your journey that led to the City of Hope.

As I mentioned from the outset, my decision to enter medicine was first driven my pragmatism and then passion. The same is true for my decision to go to City of Hope. City of Hope is a gem of a place and sits just about 5 miles west of Covina, California, the small suburb where I grew up. My mother was still living there, and being at City of Hope gave me an opportunity to pursue my career and care for her at the same time.

Now, nearly 10 years later, you won’t find a bigger champion of City of Hope than me. My positive feelings for the campus have a lot to do with our outstanding leadership. Their support and enthusiasm trickle down to virtually every employee. Dr. Steve Rosen joined us as Scientific Provost after a long tenure as Cancer Center Director at Northwestern. He is a dynamo and has gone to great lengths to ensure that junior faculty members are supported to the utmost. At every event I attend with him, he gives out his cell-phone number and encourages patients and employees to call with any requests they have. It’s not an empty promise; he really does answer that phone!

Dr. Alexandra Levine is another shining star in our leadership. She is world renowned for her work in HIV and AIDS-related lymphoma as well as Chief Medical Officer. I believe she approaches her work with a simple philosophy—to give all investigators the tools they need to succeed as she has.

Finally (and this is not an inclusive list), Dr. Ravi Salgia recently joined us from the University of Chicago to serve as Chair of Medical Oncology. Ravi is perhaps the epitome of a translational researcher; he has made great strides in his work in the laboratory. If I had to summarize his vision, he aims to give everyone in the department the tools needed to interface effectively with translational investigators on campus.

Focus on Genitourinary Oncology

Please talk about your current work and any out-of-work interests.

My current work is fairly diverse and focuses on many elements on genitourinary oncology. In prostate cancer, I’m heavily invested in two therapeutic programs. With my friend and colleague Dr. Jeremy Jones, an expert in molecular pharmacology, I am developing a novel androgen receptor inhibitor for prostate cancer that uniquely targets the DNA-binding domain of the protein. In a separate effort, I’m working with Dr. Stephen Forman on developing a CAR [chimeric antigen receptor] T-cell program for prostate cancer, dovetailing on the success he has had with this modality in hematologic malignancies.

In kidney cancer, I’m proud to be launching the biggest trial ever for papillary renal cell carcinoma, a rare subset of the disease. My study will run through the Southwest Oncology Group and will accrue about 250 patients. I’m very excited about a whole host of other studies I’ll be launching soon in the kidney and bladder cancer space.

Of course, I couldn’t do any of this without a hugely supportive wife, who helps me balance work with my 2-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son. We still live in sunny Southern California, just about 10 miles north of Disneyland. At night, my wife and I occasionally enjoy sipping a glass of wine and watching the Disneyland fireworks from our backyard. ■

Disclosure: Dr. Pal reported no potenital conflicts of interest.