In part one, of this two-part ASCO Education podcast episode, host Dr. Jeremy Cetnar (Oregon Health & Science University) interviews two very accomplished physicians and researchers, Dr. Lauren Abrey and Dr. Jason Faris. We’ll hear about their motivations for pursuing medicine and how they arrived at the different positions they’ve held in academia and industry.
Dr. Jeremy Cetnar: Hello, and welcome to the ASCO Education podcast episode on career paths and oncology. My name is Jeremy Cetnar. I’m a Medical Oncologist and Associate Professor of Medicine at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland. I’m delighted to introduce today’s two guests, whose careers in oncology have crisscrossed academia and industry. Dr. Lauren Abrey and Dr. Jason Faris, I’m excited to chat with you about the inspiration and motivations that drive you, people you’ve leaned on, how you’ve made your career decisions, challenges you’ve faced, and more.
So let’s start by asking each of you, could you share a little bit about your early life and background, what attracted you to medicine, and who are some of your early mentors and role models? Let’s start with you, Dr. Faris.
Dr. Jason Faris: Yeah, I’d be happy to. Thank you. So, I grew up in a small town in South Jersey in Greater Philadelphia. My mom was a registered nurse in pediatrics in the maternal infant unit for many years at Cooper Hospital. I was always interested in science and medicine and my mom’s dedication to her patients. Her altruism and compassion served as a real inspiration for me, for my eventual decision to go to medical school. But I took a long time to get there. I had a bit of a circuitous route to arrive to my career in medicine though it started off conventionally enough. I was initially geared towards a premedical track in college, majoring in biology, but an exciting summer research project, working on the biochemical mechanisms underlying osmoregulation in a marine crustacean with mentoring from my first true mentor, Dr. Don Lovett, led me to apply to and attend graduate school in molecular biology at Princeton.
This was followed by a position at Merck as a molecular biologist in the genetic and cellular toxicology group. I went to veterinary school at the University of Pennsylvania where I met my future wife. And then finally, back to the original plan of attending medical school, but I have to say with a much better sense of why I wanted to attend medical school in the first place, now in my late 20s, which was a bit unconventional at the time. I really did my fair share of exploration of Allied Health careers. That’s for sure. I attended Johns Hopkins for medical school, where I quickly discovered a passion for internal medicine. And that was far and away my favorite clerkship and sub-internship. That's the background to how I got to medical school.
Dr. Jeremy Cetnar: Dr. Abrey?
Dr. Lauren Abrey: Interesting. I love your story. We share... I grew up in a small town, not so far away, but I was in upstate New York. And I think there were two influences that kind of got me to my ultimate passion for brain tumors. And this sounds a little quirky to start with. But I had a pretty serious head injury as a tween. So I guess I was about 12. I had a skull fracture, epidural hematoma. And while I would never have said I woke up at that moment and thought I have to be a doctor, I think I became fascinated about things to do with the brain.
In parallel, something that I think tinged a lot of my childhood was a number of family members who had cancer. So both of my grandmothers had breast cancer, while I was well aware of the fact that they were sick and battling this. And two of my aunts also had cancer. And I would say it's an interesting split in my family. So about half of them are survivors and about half ultimately died of their disease.
So both of these things really motivated me or focused me on the need to do something important, but also to do something that really motivated me to get out of bed in the morning. I think I was much more to the point. I went straight to college, straight to medical school. I remember calling my parents and telling them I was applying to medical school and having them say, “Wait. You? Really?” So it wasn't necessarily the family expectation that I would do this, but I was very driven and motivated to make some of these choices and then discover my particular interests as I progressed through medical school. So I went to Georgetown for medical school and then have trained at a number of places in the US. I think that's a little bit how I took my first step on this career journey, let's say.
Dr. Jeremy Cetnar: So take us through what the decisions were like in your head at the end of fellowship in terms of first jobs. Dr. Faris?
Dr. Jason Faris: In terms of my choice to pursue a career in medical oncology, this goes back to medical school during an internal medicine clerkship. I had an assistant chief of service, ACS, at the time, Phil Nivatpumin. He'd go on to become a medical oncologist. He really inspired me with his optimism and bedside manner, including with multiple oncology patients on that clerkship. His enthusiasm for science and medicine, his teaching skills, and an absolutely legendary fund of knowledge. For Phil, he was just an incredible ambassador for both internal medicine and for oncology.
After medical school, I went to internship and residency at Mass General Hospital. And in one of my first rotations, I was on the oncology service, which was not so creatively called Team Three. I think they can up the ante there, but oncology services on Team Three. I was caring for many extremely ill patients battling disease progression from their metastatic cancers, or sadly, in many cases complications of their treatments. During that rotation, I was intrigued by clinical trials offering novel treatment options based on cutting edge science, but also struck by the number of patients who just didn't have any clinical trial options. I became aware of the limitations of the conventional treatments that were offered.
I was really inspired by the patience and dedication of the nurses and doctors caring for them. And I vividly recall a roughly 50-year-old woman I helped care for with AML, watching as the 7+3 chemotherapy caused lots of side effects for her and being amazed by her strength and grace, her resilience as she faced her illness, her potential mortality, and the intense chemotherapy she was undergoing. And I knew during those moments with that leukemia patient while caring for other patients on that oncology service that this was the field I would pursue. Oncology was really the perfect blend of humanism, problem solving, longitudinal follow-up and rapidly accelerating scientific progress leading to new avenues for clinical trial treatments.
Like Lauren, I was motivated and inspired by cancer diagnoses in my own family. My maternal grandmother died of pancreatic cancer during my junior year of college. My dad was diagnosed with colon cancer during my first year of fellowship. So those are all really strong motivators, I would say. And after completing my fellowship at the combined Dana-Farber MGH program, my first position out of fellowship was in the gastrointestinal cancer group at MGH. I actually had been training in genitourinary oncology after my main clinically focused year of fellowship, but I did a chief resident year in the middle of fellowship, and that was the tradition at MGH. And as I was about to return to fellowship for my senior year of fellowship, the head of the GI Group and head of the Cancer Center at the time, Dave Ryan, offered to serve as a clinical research mentor for me in GI cancers. As a senior fellow, I wrote an investigator-initiated trial of cabozantinib for patients with neuroendocrine tumors under his mentorship that went on to demonstrate encouraging results, led to a Phase III study in that cancer population, and I ultimately accepted a position at the MGH Cancer Center in the GI cancer group about 11 years ago. And that was the start of my post-training career.
Dr. Jeremy Cetnar: And how about you, Dr. Abrey?
Dr. Lauren Abrey: So for people who don't know, I'm actually a neurologist. I finished my training in neurology and then pursued a fellowship in neuro oncology. I would say it was really patients and observations of things that were happening with patients during my residency. I did my residency at the University of Southern California at Los Angeles. I was at the LA County Hospital, which for people who don't know, is one of the largest hospitals in the country. I had the chance to see several patients who had paraneoplastic syndromes, and got the support from different faculty members to write those cases up, and really resulting in my first independent publications. That was what kind of got me bitten by the bug to understand this link between neurology and oncology.
I very intentionally went to Memorial Sloan Kettering to have the opportunity to work with Jerry Posner. And I think I no sooner got there than I got totally bitten by the brain tumor bug, which seems a little counterintuitive. But the paraneoplastic work was kind of deep laboratory work. And I realized that I really enjoyed seeing the patients having the partnership with neurosurgeons and digging into what is still a pretty intense unmet medical need.
So it was an interesting pivot because I really thought I was going to Sloane to focus on paraneoplasia. I still think I learned so much with that interest that I think we can reflect on when we consider how immunology has finally entered into the treatment landscape today for different tumor types and understanding is there a background in paraneoplastic disorders that could help us. But I have to say it was really the brain tumor work that got me focused and the chance to work with people like Lisa DeAngelis, Phil Gutin, and others that was kind of fundamental to my choices. I stayed there for two years of fellowship and then continued as faculty for about another 15 years at Sloan Kettering. So that's really the start of my academic career and the pivot to industry came much later.
Dr. Jeremy Cetnar: So both of you have impressive career CVs, have been trained at very prestigious institutions. So at some point in time, take me through, what was that transition like between, 'Hmm, what I'm doing is enjoyable, but maybe there's something else out there that I want to explore.' And what I mean by that is mostly industry at this point. So that's an important question that I think a lot of junior faculty face, a lot of mid-career faculty, maybe even later-stage faculty. But I think that's a tension point for a lot of people because I think there's a lot of fear. I think there's a lot of anxiety about moving outside of the academic realm. So, tell us a little bit about what was the pull in terms of going to industry and what were some of the thought processes that were going on. Dr. Faris?
Dr. Jason Faris: I've experienced two transitions, actually, between academia and industry. I like to do things in pairs, I guess. But the first was, after multiple years at the MGH as a resident fellow and as a clinical investigator at the MGH Cancer Center. As a new attending and clinical investigator, I was attempting to balance my work priorities, providing patients with GI cancers, which is a rewarding but complex and I'd say emotionally intense experience, given the phenomenally aggressive and devastating cancers these patients grapple with such as pancreatic cancer, alongside the other responsibilities of my clinical investigator position.
Those other responsibilities included writing grants and papers and protocols, evaluating patients who were interested in open clinical trials, and serving as the principal investigator for multiple studies. I was serving on committees, mentoring and teaching. Patient care was always my top priority as it should and really must be. And I feel incredibly lucky to have had truly amazing colleagues at MGH across several disciplines, from medical oncology, nurse practitioners, practice nurses, radiation oncologists, and surgeons. It was and continues to be a dynamic place full of extremely talented and dedicated clinicians. I think we really all benefited from the coordinated teamwork in both patient care and research in a really tight-knit GI Group.
But nonetheless, for me as someone who delighted in spending large amounts of time with my patients in the clinic rooms, and I think my colleagues would agree frequently agonizing over decisions impacting their care, achieving sufficient balance to really focus on writing and overseeing clinical trials was becoming increasingly challenging for me. And it was in that context, after spending roughly a decade and the combination of residency fellowship training and as an attending in the GI cancer group all at MGH that I made a truly difficult decision to move from my beloved outpatient clinical and clinical investigator role to industry to focus more exclusively on clinical research.
And after interviewing for several industry-based roles, I accepted a position in the early-phase group at the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research or NIBR as we kind of pronounced those words in Cambridge. I absolutely loved my time at NIBR. It's an incredible place with a strong history of and commitment to innovation as well as passionate, talented colleagues, many of whom I've worked with in the past. When I first started at Novartis, I was amazed at the array of experts on the teams I was helping to lead as a clinical program leader. Our teams are the definition of multidisciplinary. They're composed of what we call line function experts in multiple disciplines. This includes preclinical safety experts who design and analyze data from studies that precede the filing of an IND, research scientists, chemists, preclinical, and clinical pharmacologists, statisticians, program managers, drug and regulatory affair colleagues, who focus on the interactions with health authorities, including the FDA, operational colleagues called clinical trial leaders, and many others.
In my role as a senior clinical program leader, I also have the opportunity to collaborate frequently with research colleagues on preclinical programs, designing and writing first in human trials, followed by conducting the actual studies and in close collaboration with our academic colleagues, analyzing the clinical and translational results.
Dr. Jeremy Cetnar: Dr. Abrey, how about you? Was there a moment or what were the moments that led to you deciding to make this transition?
Dr. Lauren Abrey: I guess I have the other sort of story. I got pushed, I would say, in the sense that like many of us, I'm married, and my husband was the one who took a job with Novartis and said, “This would be an adventure. Let's go live in Switzerland.” So similar to Jason, he took a position at NIBR, and I think for many of the same reasons, he really wanted to delve deeply into early mechanism of action and allow himself to dedicate really a chunk of his career to developing key drugs. But moving to Switzerland changes your options suddenly. I think I had spent most of my career at Sloan Kettering doing clinical trials. That was really my comfort zone, my sweet spot. And when we moved over here, I explored briefly, could I set up an academic career here?
And very kindly, I was invited by a number of Swiss colleagues to look for opportunities to do that. But I realized what I loved was talking to patients, and that that was going to be difficult with the language barrier. And I equally loved running clinical trials. So I had a great opportunity to join Roche shortly after their merge or full acquisition of Genentech. This allowed me to continue the work I had been doing on Avastin for brain tumors.
But I think the other thing that allowed me to do, that was something I was really looking for was to broaden my scope and to no longer be niched as just a brain tumor expert. And if you're in academia and you're a neurologist, obviously, you're going to be fairly constrained in that space. But moving into a role in industry really allows you to look much more broadly and work across multiple tumor types. And I spent the next seven years at Roche running not just the Avastin teams that were developing drugs for a number of indications, but really overseeing the clinical development group based in the European sites. And they had about 14 different drugs in different stages of development as well as partnerships with their early research group that was European based.
So it was a fascinating time for me, and I feel kind of like I got thrown into the pond. I knew a lot about clinical trials. I had no idea about so many other aspects of what I needed to consider. And I think Jason started to allude to some of this with the different line function expertise and things I think we take for granted or maybe we simply have blind spots around them when we are sitting in our academic organizations. So it's been a really delightful plunge into the pool. I've continued to swim mostly. Occasionally, a little bit of drowning, but a lot of fun.
Dr. Jeremy Cetnar: What would you say are the major differences between an academic career and industry?
Dr. Lauren Abrey: I think, as you said, the things that are similar is that the purpose or the mission for both is in many ways the same. We would like to develop better treatments for patients with cancer. And so there's a huge focus on clinical trials. There needs to be a huge focus on patients, and that can get diluted in industry. I think the things that you don't appreciate sometimes when you're sitting on the academic side is just really the overarching business structure and the complexity of some of the very large organizations. So you suddenly are in this huge space with people focused on regulatory approvals focused on pricing, focused on manufacturing, focused on the clinical trial execution, and why you are doing it in different spots.
And so I think some of the different factors that you have to consider are things that again, we either take for granted or are super focused when you're in one organization. And I think the tradeoffs and how decisions are made, particularly in large pharma, can be frustrating. I think we are all used to applying for grants or getting the funding we need to do whatever our project or trial is. And then you just start very laser focused on getting to the end. If you're in a large organization and they have a portfolio where they're developing 14, 15, 20 different things, you might suddenly find that the project you think is most important gets de-prioritized against something that the company thinks is more critical to move forward. And that could be because there's better data, but it could also be because there's increasing competition in the space or there's a different pull for a large company. I haven't seen the early development side as much. I've seen the development. I've now seen Medical Affairs for how some of those decisions are made, but I'd be curious to hear what Jason has seen in some of his experiences as well.
Dr. Jason Faris: Comparing and contrasting a little bit between the two, because I've run early phase studies on the academic side, I'll talk more about that in a little bit in terms of another academic position that I held. So I've run early-phase studies there. I've run early-phase studies in industry as well. And they share a lot of similarities, certainly following compelling science, the excitement about new therapies that are going to be offered to patients. But I think the execution is a bit different, and I would say, when you're running clinical trials in the academic setting, you're meeting every patient that you're going to put on study or at least one of your colleagues is, if you have sub-eyes on the study, that's a major, major difference, right? You're directly taking care of a patient going on to an experimental therapy, consenting that patient, following them over time, getting the firsthand experience and data from that patient interaction, but not necessarily, unless you're running an investigator-initiated study, not necessarily having access to the data across the whole study.
You're hearing about the data across the whole study at certain time points on investigator calls, PI meetings, dose escalation meetings, those kinds of things. But you're not necessarily having access to the real-time emergence of data across the whole study from other people's patients. So you're a bit dependent on the sponsor to provide those glimpses of the data, synthesize that and present overview. So those are some operational differences, I would say, because you're not taking direct care of the patients and having your time split among different commitments in that way I have felt a greater ability to focus on the clinical research that I'm doing in my industry-based role, which I like, of course, but I also miss taking care of patients. I love taking care of patients.
So I think it's always a double-edged sword with that if we can use a sword analogy here. But I think they both offer really exciting options to pursue new therapies for patients, which for me, was one of the fundamental reasons that I pursued medical oncology in the first place. It was really this idea that the field is rapidly advancing. I wanted to be a part of that. I saw firsthand what cancer could do to my family or family members, and I took care of patients in the hospital as an intern resident and fellow where I think there's just a tremendous unmet medical need. And so having an opportunity to contribute to the development of new therapies was always a real inspiration for me.
Dr. Jeremy Cetnar: With that being said, what led you to go back into academia?
Dr. Jason Faris: This is an ongoing saga, I guess. So after several years of professional growth at Novartis, gaining experience with designing and conducting clinical trials on the industry side, I was actually at ASCO and I learned of an open role for the director of the early phase trials program at Dartmouth’s Cancer Center. After extensive consideration, which I think you can see as my trademark at this point, I made another difficult decision to interview for the position, which was focused on helping to grow the early phase trials program at an NCI comprehensive designated cancer center that's unique in a way because it's in a rural area. And it had a new director of the Cancer Center, Steve Leach, who's a renowned laboratory scientist with a focus on pancreatic cancer and a surgeon by training.
I ultimately decided to accept the early phase director position, moving my family away from Greater Boston, where we had lived for about 15 years, to the upper valley of New Hampshire. And while at Dartmouth, I was part of exciting projects, including writing and overseeing an NCI grant called Catch Up, which was geared towards improving access to early phase clinical trials for rural patients. I opened numerous sponsor-initiated immunotherapy and targeted therapy, early phase trials. Just to say a little bit about Dartmouth’s Cancer Center - I think they also benefit from tremendous collaboration, this time across Dartmouth College, the Geisel School of Medicine, the School of Public Health. I think they provide really excellent care to their cancer patients. And I was extremely proud to be part of that culture in the GI Group, which was much smaller than the one at MGH, but also an incredibly dedicated group of multidisciplinary colleagues who work tirelessly to care for their patients.
But nonetheless, less than six months into that new position, the COVID pandemic started, and that introduced some significant and new challenges on the clinical trials side in terms of staffing, infrastructure, those kinds of things. In that context, I made a decision to return to NIBR, refocus on clinical research, and hope to harness my background in running clinical trials in both settings, both academic and industry, as well as the resources and pipeline of Novartis to really maximize my impact on drug development. So for me, it was a question of where can I have the maximum impact at this crazy time, difficult time. I saw that my best option was to return to industry to work on studies to try to develop new therapies. Broadly speaking, my role as a senior clinical program leader in the translational and clinical oncology group at NIBR is to design, write, conduct, and analyze innovative clinical trials of early phase therapeutics.
Dr. Jeremy Cetnar: Wow, that's fascinating, very, very interesting. A lot of stress. You should definitely be buying lots of presents for your family for moving them all over the place.
This concludes part one of our interview with Drs. Abrey and Faris. Thank you so much for sharing your inspiring career stories. And thank you to all our listeners for tuning into this episode of the ASCO Education Cancer Topics podcast.
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