An Interview With Savio P. Clemente
Cancer comes in many forms and stages, and it’s important to know the signs, symptoms and risk factors. Take the time to understand your family history and potential risk factors within your daily life, and check in with your healthcare provider if you have questions or concerns. And please, undergo age-appropriate cancer screenings such as mammograms and colonoscopies as decades of evidence shows that these procedures save lives!
Cancer is a horrible and terrifying disease. There is so much great information out there, but sometimes it is very difficult to filter out the noise. What causes cancer? Can it be prevented? How do you detect it? What are the odds of survival today? What are the different forms of cancer? What are the best treatments? And what is the best way to support someone impacted by cancer?
In this interview series called, “5 Things Everyone Needs To Know About Cancer” we are talking to experts about cancer such as oncologists, researchers, and medical directors to address these questions. As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ginna Laport, M.D.
Ginna Laport joined Genentech, a member of the Roche Group, in January 2020 as Vice President and Global Head of the NHL/CLL Development Franchise in Product Development where she directs the clinical development of Genentech/Roche’s pipeline of drugs for patients with NHL and CLL.
Prior to joining Genentech, she led clinical development of oncology drugs in biotech for 4 years. She has spent the majority of her career in academia, where she held faculty positions at The University of Chicago, The University of Pennsylvania and most recently, a 15-year tenure at Stanford University. She is internationally known for her clinical/translational research in bone marrow transplant and hematologic malignancies, and she has authored more than 70 peer-reviewed publications and invited book chapters.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
Both of my parents were physicians, which allowed me to see the fulfilling impact of their work for as long as I can remember. They met in medical school in the Philippines, where I was born and immigrated to the U.S. when I was a young child to provide the best opportunities for me. I am forever grateful for my parents’ sacrifices.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
As a medical student, I had the opportunity to care for patients with blood cancers, many of whom were battling leukemia, myeloma or lymphoma. The experience of witnessing those patients battle their cancer with perpetual determination and hope despite side effects and setbacks, respond to treatment, and build a life after cancer left a deep impression on me. Their influence and courage inspired me to pursue a career in hematology and clinical research. I remain inspired by these patients, their resilience, and the dynamic nature of blood cancer treatment. Cancer is a field that’s ever evolving with numerous breakthroughs in diagnosis and treatment, but there’s more work to be done. I am honored to play a role, alongside my Genentech colleagues, in developing treatments that can provide new hope to these patients and their families.
This is not easy work. What is your primary motivation and drive behind the work that you do?
While it’s certainly challenging work, I’m energized by my colleagues’ dedication to tirelessly pursue the science and build on treatment advances for blood cancers. Today, people are living with and receiving treatment for blood cancers that were considered incurable only a few decades ago. That’s pretty incredible, but there’s a lot left to do to meet the diverse needs across the many different forms of blood cancer. I’m honored to be a part of that ongoing effort.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
Blood cancers are complicated and diverse. Despite progress over the years, more treatment options are needed. I am excited and inspired by the advances in our scientific understanding of these diseases. Research in this field spans a wide array of molecular targets, therapeutic combinations and clinical trial approaches that aim to improve treatment for these diseases. This year, I’ve been excited to witness promising advances in blood cancer treatment, and I’m particularly thrilled at the momentum we’ve seen in some of the most devastating blood cancers. For example, this year we saw the first treatment regimen in two decades that improved progression-free survival compared to the standard of care in newly diagnosed diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL), an aggressive form of the disease. The regimen featured an antibody drug conjugate, a type of targeted immunotherapy that works by delivering toxic chemotherapy compounds directly to cancer cells, making treatment more precise compared to traditional chemotherapy. For people with DLBCL — 40% of whom will either stop responding to treatment or will relapse, experiencing a return of their cancer after remission — new treatments in a front-line setting could potentially change the treatment paradigm.
For the benefit of our readers, can you briefly let us know why you are an authority about the topic of Cancer?
My experience in oncology and hematology spans nearly 30 years, during which I have provided clinical patient care and conducted biomedical research. After earning my medical degree at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, I held faculty positions in the Hematology/Oncology Divisions at Stanford University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Chicago. I have authored more than 70 peer-reviewed publications and book chapters. Today, I lead the development of Genentech’s lymphoma and chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) franchise, overseeing multiple medicines in the company’s pipeline.
Ok, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Let’s start with some basic definitions so that we are all on the same page. What is exactly cancer?
Cancer is a group of diseases that occur when old or abnormal cells fail to die when they should and instead grow uncontrollably. As cancerous cells multiply, they may crowd out normal cells and invade other parts of the body. As the second most common cause of death in the United States, cancer affects approximately one in every three people, making it likely that each of us or someone we know has been affected by one of the many types of cancer.
What causes cancer?
Part of what makes cancer so challenging to treat is that the exact underlying causes are not fully understood. Though not often thought of in this way, cancer is a genetic disease, meaning it stems from changes in a person’s genes. These changes dictate how cells function, including how they grow and divide. Genetic changes can be inherited or occur over the course of a lifetime — either due to errors during cell division or from exposure to cancer-causing (carcinogenic) substances that damage DNA.
What is the difference between the different forms of cancer?
There are more than 100 different known types of cancer, which can be divided into two categories: solid tumors and hematologic (blood) cancers. Different cancers vary in how they progress and how they are treated. As I specialize in hematologic cancers, I’ll focus on two of the most common types of blood cancers — leukemia and lymphoma.
Leukemia is a cancer that originates in blood cells. There are many types, such as acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and CLL. Leukemia is broadly categorized based on the type of blood cell involved and whether it grows quickly or slowly.
Lymphoma involves cancer that begins in cells of the lymphatic system, which includes the lymph nodes, spleen and bone marrow. There are two main types: Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which can often be cured, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL), for which the prognosis varies depending on the particular subtype and stage at diagnosis.
I know that the next few questions are huge topics, but we’d love to hear your thoughts regardless. How can cancer be prevented?
While not all cancers can be prevented, certain factors, such as exposure to tobacco smoke and alcohol consumption, put people at higher risk. To decrease the risk of cancer, people can practice good nutrition and physical activity. Unfortunately, we are still working to understand the causes of blood cancers, many of which may be out of an individual’s control. A few known risk factors common to AML, CLL and NHL include older age, first-degree family history and exposure to certain chemicals. Having certain blood disorders, such as myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS), can also increase the risk of AML.
How can one detect the main forms of cancer?
Early detection is critical, potentially making it easier to treat and even cure cancer in some cases. Though screening tests may help detect certain solid tumors before symptoms appear, there are no widely recommended blood cancer screening tests that have been shown to improve prognosis. The best option for early detection of blood cancers is to familiarize oneself with possible signs and symptoms and consult a healthcare provider if you recognize any.
Some common signs and symptoms of blood cancers include chills, weight loss and fatigue. Patients may also experience symptoms specific to their type of blood cancer. For example, patients with leukemia may experience anemia while those with lymphoma may have swollen lymph nodes.
Cancer used to almost be a death sentence, but it seems that it has changed today. What are the odds of surviving cancer today?
Survival rates vary depending on multiple factors, including the type and subtype of cancer and the stage of diagnosis. Still, the 5-year relative survival rate for all cancers combined has improved substantially (about 30%) since the early 1960s thanks to advances in treatment and the implementation of preventive screening that allows for earlier diagnoses for some cancer types. And advances haven’t stopped there. Ongoing development also aims to provide treatment approaches that better meet patient preference and improve quality of life. For example, for people with CLL, there is a chemotherapy-free treatment regimen currently available that is fixed in duration, meaning that patients only have to take the medicine for a set period of time, rather than until their cancer progresses.
Can you share some of the new cutting-edge treatments for cancer that have recently emerged? What new cancer treatment innovations are you most excited to see come to fruition in the near future?
At Genentech, we have a longstanding history in hematology and are committed to the blood cancer community. We believe in a personalized approach to treatment that prioritizes patient preference and convenience. Our scientists working in hematology research and development know that new treatment options are urgently needed for people around the world living with blood cancers, and we are excited to be advancing innovation in this area.
Earlier this year, because of the dedication and hard work of our scientists and the commitment of people who participated in our clinical trials, results from a Phase III trial showed for the first time in nearly two decades significant improvement over the standard of care for patients with first-line DLBCL. Specifically, initial results from the completed POLARIX study, which evaluated our medicine Polivy® (polatuzumab vedotin) in combination with Rituxan® (rituximab) and chemotherapy, showed that this combination significantly improved progression-free survival in patients with previously untreated DLBCL. Polivy is classified as an antibody-drug conjugate (ADC), which works by targeting and destroying B cells implicated in DLBCL. ADCs are immunotherapy medicines that combine antibody targeting with an anti-cancer agent to eliminate cancer cells.
Immunotherapies, which are a type of medicine designed to boost a patient’s own immune system or use lab-modified versions of immune cells to kill cancer cells or slow their spread, show promise in several other forms of cancer. Bispecific antibodies, which are designed to target the cells from which cancer arises by recruiting the body’s own immune system to destroy them, are another form of immunotherapy. They are currently being studied for the treatment of several diseases, including DLBCL and follicular lymphoma that has either recurred or stopped responding to therapy. We hope that treatment innovations such as these will provide options to people living with this aggressive type of lymphoma.
Healing usually takes place between doctor visits. What have you found to be most beneficial to assist a patient to heal?
My advice to patients is to create a treatment journey that supports their individual lifestyle and needs with their healthcare provider. This means discussing various options — for example, a regimen that provides flexibility in dosing or duration. Because a blood cancer diagnosis evolves over time, it’s important that patients recognize they may go through periods of feeling less energized and require more rest. They may need to spend some days resting and recharging and other days engaging in more active and enjoyable activities.
I like to reiterate the power of connection — whether with family and friends, healthcare providers or other networks, such as advocacy groups. One advocacy organization I always share with patients is the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS), which is dedicated to serving the blood cancer community.
While support may look different for everyone, collaboration helps people navigate a cancer journey together.
From your experience, what are a few of the best ways to support a loved one, friend, or colleague who is impacted by cancer?
The answer varies based on the preferences and needs of the person diagnosed and the relationship you have with that person. Being aware of your loved one’s preferences and the choices around treatment approach is key. Aside from that, offering and asking how you can support the person living with cancer is the best thing you can do. Tailor your support to their evolving needs. Make yourself available and demonstrate ongoing support. A great place to start both for people living with cancer and their caregivers and loved ones is with the resources and practical tips available through advocacy groups such as LLS.
What are a few of the biggest misconceptions and myths out there about fighting cancer that you would like to dispel?
As a scientific community, we’re still learning a lot about cancers, how they develop and how to treat them. While the science is exciting and promising, the uncertainty and number of lives touched by cancer can leave room for commonly accepted myths to emerge. There are two I’d like to dispel. First, I’d like people to know that there are many treatment options for cancer and that new options are emerging. Second, I’d like people to know that, with novel treatment options, there is new hope for families facing a cancer diagnosis.
Myth 1: Traditional chemotherapy is the only option.
When chemotherapy was introduced, it provided a treatment option for cancers beyond the reach of the surgeon and radiotherapist. Today, chemotherapy remains the typical course of treatment for many cancers, but new options are continuously evolving — some of which are more effective, more convenient and with fewer, less severe side effects. Some work in combination with chemotherapy, while others provide a chemotherapy-free option. Some of these new treatment options have the potential to help patients with blood cancer maintain a better quality of life.
Myth 2: Fighting cancer is a losing battle.
Scientists are making regular progress to discover and develop treatment options for those living with cancers of all types and stages of diagnosis. My Genentech colleagues and I have seen first-hand the power of what “following the science” can do to expand treatment options for both acute and chronic blood cancers and improve patients’ quality of life and chance of survival. I credit these advances to the dedicated researchers and patients who participate in groundbreaking clinical trials — it takes a team in the fight against blood cancers.
Thank you so much for all of that. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what are your “5 Things Everyone Needs To Know About Cancer?” Please share a story or example for each.
- Cancer comes in many forms and stages, and it’s important to know the signs, symptoms and risk factors. Take the time to understand your family history and potential risk factors within your daily life, and check in with your healthcare provider if you have questions or concerns. And please, undergo age-appropriate cancer screenings such as mammograms and colonoscopies as decades of evidence shows that these procedures save lives!
- There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to treatment. Just as no one’s family history, genetic makeup or day-to-day life is the same, neither is any individual’s experience with cancer. Should you or a loved one receive a cancer diagnosis, have an open dialogue with your physician to discuss your preferences and treatment options and create a personalized plan. Don’t hesitate to obtain a second opinion.
- Reach out for support early and often. Just as treatment takes many forms, support does too. Establish a network of friends, family, caretakers and providers who can offer different types of support at various moments in time throughout the journey. Also explore the many incredible advocacy organizations that are dedicated to helping patients with blood cancers and find the one that is best suited for you.
- It is a misconception that cancer is a “depressing” field. As with all challenging situations, we focus on where we CAN make a difference and we focus on the battles won in this ongoing “war against cancer.” These victories are what energizes and inspires all of us who have devoted our careers to advancing cancer diagnosis and treatment.
- There is tremendous hope. I speak for myself as a clinician and my colleagues at Genentech/Roche when I say that we are in the fight together for a better tomorrow. Thanks to incredible science and to devoted researchers and clinicians, cancer patients are living longer and more patients are being cured.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would love to create a world where all cancer patients have access to clinical trials. Currently, less than 10% of adult cancer patients participate in and/or have access to clinical trials. The impact would be enormous on so many levels. First, more cancer patients would have access to medicines that could potentially extend their lives or even cure them. Currently, 90% or more don’t have or are not even aware of this option. Second, accrual to clinical trials would happen much faster, which could lead to faster approval of more life-saving drugs. Third, universal access to clinical trials would also address the ongoing lack of representation of minorities or financially disadvantaged populations in clinical trial populations.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Ginna Laport LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ginna-laport-53bba3109/
Learn more about our work at Genentech in hematology: https://www.gene.com/topics/hematology
Or follow us on:
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/genentech
- Facebook: https://facebook.com/genentech
- LinkedIn: https://linkedin.com/company/genentec
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Thank you so much for these insights! This was very inspirational and we wish you continued success in your great work.