John Mendelsohn, M.D., a distinguished cancer researcher, spoke at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy’s Center for Health and Biosciences on Sept. 2 about his professional journey and the future of cancer treatment.

Mendelsohn is an L.E. and Virginia Simmons Fellow in Health and Technology Policy at the Baker Institute. After previously serving as president of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Mendelsohn currently sits as the director of the Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Institute for Personalized Cancer Therapy at MD Anderson.

The institute focuses on preclinical research and clinical trials in order to employ personalized cancer therapy and optimize patient outcomes, according to the MD Anderson Cancer Center’s website.

Mendelsohn went to University of California, San Diego where he founded a National Cancer Institute designated cancer center. There, Mendelsohn and Dr. Gordon Sato eventually succeeded in targeting and suppressing specific tumors through the production of a certain antibody.

Targeted cancer therapy is the focus at the Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Institute for Personalized Cancer Therapy.

“Precision, or personalized, cancer treatment involves taking advantage of all information available about the patient and his or her cancer in order to prescribe treatments most likely to succeed in achieving a cure or substantial prolongation of life,” Mendelsohn said. 

The goals of the Institute emphasize improved prognoses for cancer patients and education for doctors and patients.

“We now know most of the genetic abnormalities that cause cancer and can detect biomarkers in an individual’s cancer in a reasonable time frame for a reasonable cost, about the same amount as two MRI scans,” Mendelsohn explained. “Clinical trials using this approach have been successful, showing that for prolongation of life, targeted treatment is better than randomly assigned.”

This type of therapy affords a potential opportunity to cure the incurable, according to Mendelsohn. 

“If standard therapy, surgery, radiation and chemo are not producing a cure, we wanted to be able to screen genes, develop clinical trials to bring therapy to these patients, and provide decision support to help physicians and patients,” Mendelsohn said.

Mendelsohn said it is clear from the data that this personalized therapy is working overall, but there is still much to learn.

“We need more trials with combinations of therapies,” Mendelsohn said. “We need to work with multiple drug companies, handle toxicities, understand sensitivity and resistance better. We need a vast knowledge network to create a research computational platform.”

According to Mendelsohn, the work of the Sheikh Khalifa Institute is changing the way cancer is treated, while showing pharmaceutical companies that the modern way to fight cancer is not necessarily what they expected.

“Once we have shown that something works, it goes into the standard of practice and any doctor and any patient can benefit from that,” Mendelsohn said. “The [pharmaceutical] companies dream of drugs that work against all types of one cancer, but there won’t be one. The companies are retooling and making sense of the fact that there won’t be a ‘blockbuster’ drug.”

Jones College sophomore Alina Mohanty decided to attend Mendelsohn’s talk, which was entitled “Precision Medicine: Past, Present, and Future,” after learning of all he had accomplished.

“I was drawn by Dr. Mendelsohn’s positions and achievements,” Mohanty said. “I figured if he had accomplished so much, he would definitely have something to say that I could learn from.”

Mohanty enjoyed the talk due to Mendelsohn’s incorporation of medicine, science and policy.

“Dr. Mendelsohn’s talk was exciting and informative,” Mohanty said. “While the lecture was very scientific, he explained step-by-step how he came about producing Erbitux. Not only did we learn about cancers and cancer treatment, but also we learned about the experiences of a successful physician and his views on policy that should be implemented in his field of medicine. It was altogether a very well-rounded talk.”