From Behind the Iron Curtain to a Career in Gynecologic Cancer Research for Daniela Matei, MD

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Daniela Matei, MD

Daniela Matei, MD

Daniela Matei, MD, Diana, Princess of Wales Professor of Cancer Research at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago, grew up Sibiu, a picturesque Romanian city situated at the foothills of the Cindrel Mountains in historic Transylvania. “Both of my parents were physicians, and some of my early passion for science was ignited by their professions. But as a child, I didn’t want to pursue a career as a doctor; my dream was to become a writer.”

However, Dr. Matei’s passion for the physical sciences eventually won over the call to literature. After high school, she enrolled in Carol Davila University of Medicine and Pharmacy in Bucharest. Created in 1857, it is the largest and oldest medical school in Romania and one of the most prestigious in Eastern Europe.

“I don’t have very vivid recollections about medical school, as my life is essentially split in two. When I began medical school, Romania was a communist country behind the Iron Curtain. In 1989, about halfway through my studies, the communist state fell, and I was able to leave Romania and emigrate to the United States in 1990,” shared Dr. Matei.

During medical school in Bucharest, Dr. Matei had a female mentor, a cardiologist, whose influence steered her toward internal medicine. “I fell in love with the complexity of internal medicine, treating various illnesses all of which had different pathways to find and treat.” When she arrived in America, Dr. Matei began her residency at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, on Long Island, New York, where she had an influential mentor, Dr. Stefan Madajewicz, who was a solid tumor medical oncologist.

“Like internal medicine,” Dr. Matei continued, “oncology offered a complex medical challenge, along with a doctor-patient interaction that is unique in cancer care. At first, I was torn between cardiology and oncology, but oncology won out, and I’m glad I went in that direction, as the field offered the opportunity to be part of groundbreaking science.”

From the East Coast to the West Coast

Following her residency at Stony Brook, Dr. Matei crossed the country to begin an oncology fellowship at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), largely because of the institution’s strong research division embedded in the fellowship program along with a robust bone marrow transplant unit, which was an attraction for Dr. Matei. The fellowship’s clinical training was condensed into the first year, after which she began 3 years of research in the laboratory of David Chang, PhD, who had initiated a National Institutes of Health study in ovarian cancer.

“On my first day in the laboratory, David asked if I wanted to do a gene-expression analysis of ovarian cancer compared to normal ovarian epithelium using microarrays. Our investigation ended up being the first published study on expression profiling in ovarian cancer,” said Dr. Matei.

Dr. Matei explained that in the early 2000s, UCLA was on the cutting edge of molecular oncology. Dennis Slamon, MD, was leading the faculty and trastuzumab had just been approved, which had resulted from his work as a fellow. “During my fellowship, UCLA was one of the institutions participating in the first clinical trials of imatinib. We had a trial patient on imatinib with chronic myeloid leukemia–accelerated blast crisis, presenting with pancytopenia. Nobody knew how to proceed. If she’d been on chemotherapy, we would have stopped treatment, but imatinib was new territory, so the principal investigator said to continue treatment, which ended up being the right clinical decision, leading to a remission for this patient,” she explained.

Dr. Matei continued: “During my journey from Romania to UCLA, I was fortunate to be one of the initial physicians involved in the beginning of molecular oncology. I must say that the experience was a total game-changer in my career. It was so exciting, and it changed my worldview of the possibilities that lie ahead in oncology.”

Recruited by an Oncology Luminary

The experience at UCLA convinced Dr. Matei that academic oncology was her forte, offering her the best of both worlds in the clinic and research lab. While attending a research fellows meeting in Arizona, Dr. Matei submitted and presented an abstract that caught the attention of oncology luminary Lawrence Einhorn, MD.

“It was late in the recruitment process, but Larry told me that mine was one of the best fellow’s presentation he’d ever heard and recruited me to Indiana University. I actually wanted to do transplant or breast oncology, but there wasn’t an opening. My research work had been in ovarian cancer, and Larry suggested I do gynecologic oncology. I did and am glad for it,” Dr. Matei recalled.

Juggling Clinical and Research Interests

At Indiana University, Dr. Matei did clinical work in gynecologic cancers and accelerated her research interests in ovarian cancer, garnering an American Cancer Society Research Scholar Award, which helped her efforts to secure independent grants. “It was a fruitful period that allowed me to set up my own small laboratory, which grew over time. And now, more than 18 years after completing my fellowship, I’m still a physician-scientist doing clinical research as well as basic bench lab work,” said Dr. Matei.

After 14 years at Indiana University, Dr. Matei was recruited in 2016 by the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine to develop an ovarian cancer research program. “I’m like a juggler here, and the more things I juggle, the better I perform. I spend 1 day a week in the clinic seeing patients with gynecologic malignancies. I run an academic practice in which I have a number of clinical trials currently open. I’m very interested in translating my own research from bench to the clinic. Over the years, I’ve run more than 10 investigator-initiated trials. We do a lot of hypothesis-testing work in the clinic, taking tissue samples from patients back to the lab to see whether our biologic questions are answerable in clinical trials,” said Dr. Matei.

Dr. Matei’s current research focuses on finding new treatments to eliminate ovarian cancer stem cells and improve outcomes for women with this deadly cancer. Another area of investigation is to target the epigenome and re-establish response to chemotherapy for ovarian tumors that have become resistant to treatment. “Naturally, I spend a lot of time writing research grants, so I let my talented postdoctoral fellows troubleshoot, experiment, and design new creative protocols. I have a super busy, but very rewarding career, which keeps getting better, as we’re in such an exciting time in the field of oncology,” commented Dr. Matei.

To Wyoming to Decompress

Asked to comment on her remedy against burnout, Dr. Matei replied: “I’ve always had a passion for the arts, so I continue to do creative writing, poetry mostly. I’ve had a book published back in Romania, but given my challenging career, I don’t have enough time to seriously pursue writing.”

Her main way to decompress is to involve herself in nature. “We always take nature-oriented vacations, and next week I plan to head to Wyoming to hike for 10 days in the Grand Tetons. It will be our fourth time there, and I can’t wait. It’s the most beautiful place on earth, in my view, and being there is the best way to center yourself and destress from the challenges of a career in oncology, especially during these unusual times.” 

DISCLOSURE: Dr. Matei has received honoraria from AstraZeneca, Clovis, GSK, Radius, and Tesaro; has served as a consultant or advisor to Astex Pharmaceuticals, AstraZeneca, Clovis Oncology, and Roche/Genentech; has received research funding from Merck; and has been reimbursed for travel, accommodations, or other expenses by AstraZeneca, Genentech/Roche, and Radius Health.