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Maria R. Baer, M.D., a nationally recognized leader in leukemia treatment and research, has joined the University of Maryland Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum Cancer Center (UMGCC) as head of the Hematologic Malignancies program. She recently shared her plans for the program and talked about promising new developments in treatment and research for patients with blood cancers.
What attracted you to come to the University of Maryland cancer center?
The opportunity to lead the Hematologic Malignancies Program at the University of Maryland Greenebaum Cancer Center was very attractive to me for a number of reasons. The University of Maryland has made many important contributions to laboratory and clinical research in Hematologic Malignancies over the last several decades, and, based on the existing clinical and laboratory strengths and recent scientific developments, I saw the opportunity for the Program to continue to make important contributions nationally and internationally. I was also very impressed by Dr. Cullen's leadership and vision for the cancer center. This is an exciting time to join the cancer center. Finally, I was drawn by the dual emphasis on research geared to improving outcomes for cancer patients and on high-quality, efficient and compassionate care of each and every patient who comes to the cancer center. The overwhelming commitment to outstanding patient care was evident at every level.
What do you see as the strengths of UMGCC's program in hematologic malignancies?
The University of Maryland already has a number of very talented and productive clinical and laboratory investigators in the area of Hematologic Malignancies. Particular clinical strengths are the number and quality of clinical trials testing new chemotherapy drugs and biologic agents, the skill of the clinical investigators who are leading these trials and the leadership of Dr. Sausville in clinical trials management and infrastructure. An important research focus is mechanisms of drug resistance in cancer cells, which is my also my primary research interest, and analysis of the effects of drugs on cancer cells in conjunction with clinical trials.
Other strengths are the existence of a strong Blood and Marrow Transplant Program, under Dr. Yanovich's leadership, that provides outstanding patient care, and additional research strengths in immunotherapy treatment approaches and in molecular biology of hematologic malignancies geared toward developing new treatments.
What plans do you have for developing the program?
My goals are to enhance the contributions of the University of Maryland in the area of Hematologic Malignancies by strengthening clinical trials, publications, grant support and mentoring and interactions of the very talented investigators who are already at Maryland, as well as future recruits.
My initial approach will be to promote and enhance existing strengths and to build around them. One major strength is access to new chemotherapy drugs and biologic agents from a large variety of sources, including the National Cancer Institute, a Phase 2 clinical trials consortium, the pharmaceutical industry, Cancer and Leukemia Group B and a Phase I clinical trials consortium for which a grant proposal was recently submitted.A second strength is the availability of a state-of-the-art clinical research infrastructure for bringing these drugs to patients. A third strength is the availability of laboratory capabilities for understanding the effects of these drugs and the mechanisms by which cancer cells respond to them or resist them. Finally, there is strength in modeling of drug effects and interactions. I plan to pull all of these strengths together and formalize interactions to create a strong center for testing of new drugs and biologic agents.
What are your primary clinical interests?
My special clinical interests are acute leukemia and myelodysplastic syndromes.
What new developments or treatments should patients be aware of in the area of blood cancers?
The last few years have seen remarkable advances in the treatment of hematologic malignancies, particularly the advent of numerous biologic agents that show promise as single agents or in combination with chemotherapy. Some of these therapies have already radically altered the approach to treatment of hematologic malignancies in the last few years, and improved treatment outcome. Many of these agents have been developed based on recent biological insights. Examples include imatinib mesylate (Gleevec) in chronic myelogenous leukemia, lenalidomide (Revlimid) in multiple myeloma and myelodysplastic syndromes, and the hypomethylating agents 5-azacytidine (Vidaza) and decitabine (Dacogen) in myelodysplastic syndromes.
What new techniques or therapies show promise for the future?
New therapies that show promise include biologic agents that block signaling pathways, change gene expression or alter the microenvironment of cancer cells. Novel approaches that are promising in the acute leukemias include inhibitors of FLT3 and mTOR signaling, as well as new antibodies and vaccines that are currently being tested.
What are your chief research interests and how you hope to collaborate with other cancer researchers here?
My main research interest is understanding mechanisms of drug resistance in leukemia cells, and developing strategies for overcoming or bypassing these mechanisms of resistance. A particular focus is proteins expressed on the surface of leukemia cells that pump chemotherapy drugs out of cells. Some of the novel biologic agents used to treat leukemias and other hematologic malignancies are also subject to the effects of these proteins, and some block the action of these proteins. I am seeking to develop new approaches to incorporating these agents into treatment for leukemias. This work starts in the laboratory, with the goal of developing new combination treatments that are likely to be effective in treating patients. These new combination treatments are then tested in clinical trials in patients, and it is important to again use the laboratory to determine whether the desired effects are achieved in patients' leukemia cells. The overall goal is to improve the outcome of treatment for leukemia patients.
Remarkably, I have already collaborated with both laboratory and clinical investigators at the UMGCC in recent years, including Dr. Ross and Dr. Gojo, before having any idea that I would be moving to Maryland. I now look forward to working closely with these valued co-investigators as colleagues at Maryland.
For more information about treatment for hematologic malignancies, or any of our other programs or services for cancer patients, please call 1-800-888-8823.