(November 3, 2017) — For more than 30 years, Michael B. Atkins, MD, deputy director of Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, has dedicated his career to advancing immunotherapy treatments that will improve his patients’ lives. At an event celebrating his installation as the Dr. Scholl Chair of Medical Oncology, Atkins remained focused on his patients, including several in the audience, who “are not only cancer survivors but thrivers.”
“Immunotherapy has turned my melanoma clinic from a place of fear and suffering to a virtual travel agency as patients are finishing their treatments and returning to their pre-cancer lives,” Atkins said at the October 30 dinner in Riggs Library. “Given a second chance at life, they are pursuing it with gusto, not only traveling the world and attending milestone family events they feared they would never live to see but also making meaningful contributions to their community and society as a whole.”
Endowed by the Dr. Scholl Foundation, the Dr. Scholl Chair in Medical Oncology was created as a fully endowed professorship to support the work of a distinguished physician, educator and researcher making extraordinary contributions to cancer research and education as well as patient care.
“The work of cancer discovery and developing innovative new therapies is hard,” said Louis M. Weiner, MD, director of Georgetown Lombardi. “Having these kind of endowed professorships makes a huge difference for us because it allows our most talented individuals with the greatest potential to make a big difference to do that exciting work, freed of some of the financial constraints that they would otherwise face. So this is really important and we’re deeply grateful for the support.”
Celebrating a Long-Standing Partnership
The relationship between Georgetown Lombardi and the Dr. Scholl Foundation dates back to the early 1980s. The inaugural Dr. Scholl Professor of Medical Oncology was awarded to Philip S. Schein, MD, then-chief of the division of medical oncology at Georgetown Lombardi.
“Tonight we also honor our long-standing partnership with the Dr. Scholl Foundation,” said Edward B. Healton, MD, MPH, executive vice president for health sciences at Georgetown University Medical Center. “The support of the Dr. Scholl Foundation also serves as an inspiration to other community partners who consider this commitment a trustworthy vote for confidence in our work.”
Dan Mahaffee (C'09, SFS'15), director of the Scholl Foundation, represented the foundation at the event.
“In a town where we have so many disagreements, we understand that what you guys tackle is blind to religion, it’s blind to party, it’s blind to creed and economic status,” Mahaffee said. “So the work that you’re doing and the pride that we have in continuing to support that in sharing our family name on such amazing work is a great honor.”
“Dr. Atkins, is that you?”
Weiner met Atkins at Tufts University when Weiner was a fellow and Atkins was a resident. Before introducing Atkins, Weiner shared his favorite story about him. About six years ago, Atkins was on vacation with his wife in the Florida Keys and looking for someone to play tennis with when he heard someone say, “Dr. Atkins, is that you?”
Atkins turned around and saw a former patient who he had treated with one of the first immunotherapy drugs. “He had treated this person for his metastatic kidney cancer many years before and the guy had been cured,” Weiner said. “And then this man said, ‘I’d like to introduce you to my son,’ who was a young man who was born after Mike had treated this man for his cancer. So this is the impact that greatness has on our society. This is the impact of great and innovative work.”
The careers of Weiner and Atkins repeatedly intersected over time and when Weiner became the director of Georgetown Lombardi, he wanted Atkins to join him. “I know it’s been great for Mike’s patients because he’s been at the forefront of a revolution in treating cancer patients with immunotherapy drugs that enable the body’s own immune system to attack the cancer and destroy it,” Weiner said.
In his remarks, Atkins highlighted the experiences of four patients attending the dinner who have benefitted from his work on immunotherapy. “While these are all exceptional individuals and they have remarkable stories, their experience is becoming more the rule than the exception,” he said. “I could have filled this room with survivors from our clinic who have received these type of therapies with similarly remarkable stories. And together they represent the new face of advanced melanoma and merkel cell cancer.”
“… There Is Still Much More to be Done”
When Atkins left Harvard and Tufts to come to Georgetown Lombardi, he was given chairs — literally — in honor of his contributions to those two institutions. “I believe this was part of a long tradition of providing mature investigators a place to perch while they rested on their laurels,” Atkins said. “But I don’t intend to rest on any laurels as there is still much more to be done.”
Researchers need to find biomarkers in tumors that will help doctors give the right combination therapy to the right patients, identify mechanisms of resistance to treatment and how to overcome them, spot and treat side effects as they occur and determine when it’s safe for patients to stop treatment, Atkins said.
“When I started in this field, before my hair was grey, and years later when I first got these two chairs, the goal of oncology was to turn cancer into a chronic disease,” he said. “But with our advances over the past few years in immunotherapy, I believe that we have the opportunity to make cancer a curable disease here at Georgetown, around the world and for the rest of time. And I couldn’t be more honored to have a chair that allows me this perch from which to keep working towards that goal.”