Alex A. Adjei, MD, PhD, is a Professor of Oncology and Professor of Pharmacology in the Mayo College of Medicine. He has had a passion for drug development in cancer, as well as for mentoring the next generation of specialists during his multifaceted career.
For his many accomplishments in cancer drug development, Dr. Adjei has been chosen as the inaugural recipient of the Adi F. Gazdar IASLC Merit Award. Dr. Adjei was surprised and humbled by having been selected as this year’s award winner.
“I was delighted of course,” he said.
In 2019, the IASLC Board of Directors unanimously voted to elevate its recognition of Dr. Adi F. Gazdar to one of its highest honors by renaming the IASLC Merit Award for Dr. Gazdar. The Adi F. Gazdar IASLC Merit Award proudly recognizes and honors Dr. Gazdar’s lifelong dedication to lung cancer research through his pioneering work in molecular pathology.
Many Roles and Accomplishments
Dr Adjei is the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Thoracic Oncology (JTO) and inaugural Editor-in-Chief of JTO Clinical Research Reports (JTO CRR). Both journals feature novel research about the prevention, detection, diagnosis, and treatment of all thoracic malignancies. With an Impact Factor of 13.357, JTO is now among the top 5% of all oncology journals and the leading journal that is entirely focused on thoracic oncology. It emphasizes a multidisciplinary approach and includes original research, reviews and opinion pieces. JTO CRR, IASLC’s open access companion title, publishes a range of manuscripts from subset analyses of published trials to high-quality case reports.
Dr. Adjei is also Director of the Early Cancer Therapeutics Program across all three Mayo Clinic sites, and leader of the Lung Cancer Program at these locations. He is also the Principal Investigator of the Mayo phase I and phase II NCI grants. Dr Adjei has served on a number of National Cancer Institute Committees. He is currently co-chair of the Thoracic Malignancies Steering Committee.
In addition, he has authored 290 publications dealing primarily with preclinical pharmacology and phase I trials as well as novel therapeutics/phase II trials of lung cancer.
The Importance of Mentorship
Dr. Adjei received the first American Society of Clinical Oncology Drug Development Research Professorship 2012-2017, in recognition of his mentorship and his work in cancer drug development.
“I’ve had the opportunity to mentor a lot of young people,” he said of his proudest professional accomplishment. “Professionally, you’re like a parent and the hope is that your kids will do better than you did in their careers,” he said.
After all, cancer care is multidisciplinary-team science, and no one is innovating in a single silo. Teamwork is so important to the success of projects and programs.
A lot of major improvements in lung cancer care have happened during his career but he sees that the next generation will continue to move the ball down the field, furthering research, and improving the quality of life for patients and their care partners.
The Evolution of Lung Cancer Therapies
Dr. Adjei’s background is in cancer pharmacology, and he knew from the beginning that he wanted to focus on innovating therapies for all types of cancers. His training and fellowship focus was on phase I trials for drug development across cancer types, a path which eventually led him to lung cancer.
Since that time, novel treatments have improved quality of life for patients and drastically changed the landscape of lung cancer care. The sea change started with introduction of molecularly-targeted therapies which inhibited the protein products of abnormal genes that stimulated lung cancer growth. The use of these targeted therapies is especially gratifying in cases where the patient appears to be close to death but survives and thrives. Since then newer targeted therapies and immunotherapies have resulted in the types of overall survival benefit only seen before in other cancer types.
“It’s like night and day,” Dr. Adjei said. In his early days, his patients were not responding to the available therapy, and it was disheartening to see patient after patient experience tumor growth despite therapy, or to watch them suffer with severe chemotherapy-related side effects.
“I would say lung cancer is one solid tumor where we have made some of the greatest advances,” he said.
Unfortunately, the majority of lung cancers in the United States and other Western countries do not harbor mutations against which a targeted agent can be used. The advent of immunotherapy has changed the outlook of these patients who are not candidates for a targeted agent, and the excitement around these new agents have led more early career investigators to enter the lung cancer field.
“There’s a lot going on with new therapies. It’s exciting,” he said.
The Hope for the Future
Dr. Adjei is proud of what he and his teams have accomplished during his career and the hope is that more patients in less affluent nations will be able to access and afford the innovative treatments currently available and those that are in development.
He encourages researchers and clinicians to confront disparities in care and work toward dissolving them. “As a society, as academics, can we go on making these expensive drugs, that the majority of patients do not have access to?”
Dr. Adjei’s hope is that the next generation of lung cancer specialists will be able to bring life-saving medications to everyone who needs them across the globe, at an affordable price.