NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

Adjei Discusses Cancer Drugs, Underrepresentation in Trials

Dr. Springfield gives plaque to Dr. Adjei
Dr. Alex Adjei receives his CURE DSS award from Dr. Sanya Springfield, director of the NCI Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities (and also, coincidently, Adjei’s mentor for his CURE K01).

Dr. Alex Adjei of the Mayo Clinic presented the latest talk in the Continuing Umbrella of Research Experiences (CURE) Distinguished Scholars Seminars, which recognize outstanding former CURE scholars. Speakers are pursuing leading-edge cancer or cancer health disparities research and personify efforts to advance workforce diversity.

Early in his career, Adjei became part of the first class of scholars in the NCI Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities’ CURE program, earning a CURE K01 award in 1997.

In his talk “Successes and Challenges in Early Phase Drug Development for Cancer Therapy,” Adjei described work done throughout his career in developing cancer therapies.

Today, as an internationally recognized pioneer in drug development and thoracic oncology, Adjei is professor of oncology and pharmacology at the Mayo College of Medicine and director of early cancer therapeutics at all three Mayo Clinic sites. He has spent more than 30 years evaluating mechanisms of drug action and synergistic drug combinations and applied his expertise to advance the treatment of lung cancer.

During his recent presentation, he discussed a career developing cancer therapies.

“We learned…” “We’ve learned a lot.” “We realized…” These are among the ways he referred to discrete lessons he and team members gathered from early studies in his career. These lessons have fed into and guided the development of new therapies for patients, which have resulted in a better understanding of cancer and how to prevent it.

In his current work, Adjei is studying how to improve the effectiveness of immune checkpoint inhibitors which, while being active, do not shrink tumors more than 50 percent, with perhaps a few exceptions.

“What this means is that—in spite of all the hype—the majority of patients don’t always derive a lot of benefit,” from immune checkpoint inhibitors, he said.

How does he hope to address this problem?

“Now, with the advent of immunotherapy, we have been working…to see if we can use oncolytic viruses to enhance the efficacy of these inhibitors,” he said, “and provide new therapies for treating cancer.”

Adjei also discussed underrepresentation of diverse populations in clinical trials, an issue that he is passionate about.

He sees two elements to the problem. The first is recruiting diverse populations to the centers conducting these trials.

“What I find is that when patients walk through the door, we can get them on study,” he said.

Sharing an anecdote to highlight what he sees as the second element, Adjei explained that he was one of only two African-American fellows/faculty during his fellowship. After leaving his fellowship, he continued to field numerous phone calls from his former African-American patients any time they were faced with an opportunity for a clinical trial, asking whether they should participate. As their former physician and as a person of color, his opinion carried weight.

“That was a big lesson,” he said. “We need a workforce that mirrors the population. Then the clinical trials accrual will follow that.” 

The NIH Record

The NIH Record, founded in 1949, is the biweekly newsletter for employees of the National Institutes of Health.

Published 25 times each year, it comes out on payday Fridays.

Assistant Editor: Eric Bock (link sends e-mail)

Staff Writer: Amber Snyder (link sends e-mail)