Q&A: Wafik S. El-Deiry, MD, PhD, FACP

Photo by: David DeBalko

Photo by David DeBalko

Wafik S. El-Deiry, an international leader in translational research and one of 40 active American Cancer Society research professors, joined Fox Chase in October as deputy cancer center director for translational research. He serves as co-leader of the molecular therapeutics research program and treats patients with colorectal cancer.

Together with his lab, El-Deiry came to Fox Chase from Penn State University’s Milton S. Hershey Medical Center and the Penn State College of Medicine. His team is focused on developing new and personalized therapies to treat resistant cancers. He received his MD and PhD in biochemistry from the University of Miami School of Medicine before completing a medical residency and oncology fellowship at The Johns Hopkins Hospital and Oncology Center. Prior to serving as Penn State chief of hematology/oncology, El-Deiry held leadership roles at the University of Pennsylvania Abramson Cancer Center.

Q: How did you decide on a career in colorectal cancer research and treatment?

A: I went into medical oncology because I enjoy taking care of patients, dealing with multiple organ systems, and I find the science fascinating. I was privileged to work with Bert Vogelstein at Johns Hopkins as he was unraveling the molecular genetics of colorectal cancer, which was career-shaping for me. Much of my research and clinical effort is focused on this disease, which is becoming increasingly complex. We have more drugs, we’re targeting therapies in a more individualized way, and patients are living longer.

Q: Why did you decide to come to Fox Chase, and what do you hope to accomplish here?

A: Fox Chase has a national reputation as a leading cancer center—a place where fundamental discoveries in science are made and where clinical trials bring this new knowledge to patients. The continuing challenge is to accelerate that process and make it more efficient. The Center is already distinguished by active collaboration between scientists and clinicians—something I hope to nurture and expand.

Fox Chase also has a very impressive clinical trials program, which includes sought-after national trials from industry and cooperative groups as well as innovative investigator-initiated trials.

Q: Why is translational research an important field in the current era of cancer medicine?

A: Translation brings together the best that a cancer center has to offer—its discoveries and outstanding clinical service—in order to positively impact patients. As we get better at translation, one of the goals is to be able to predict which patients will respond to therapy. Then clinical trials are smaller, less expensive, and the path to getting new treatments approved is faster and more efficient.

From the Philadelphia chromosome to current efforts targeting genetic and epigenetic pathways, Fox Chase has a great history of translation. Maintaining this legacy into the future will involveongoing innovation, technological advances to help patients, and collab­orations spanning disciplines and institutions—all with the aim of impacting scientific and clinical progress regionally and globally.

Q: What has been your career highlight to date?

A: One highlight was the discovery of p21, or WAF1, a universal cell cycle regulator that controls cell division after chemotherapy or radiation, on which a class of drugs called CDK inhibitors is based. More recently, my lab developed a first-in-class compound that is now in clinical trials to target the pathway of a “death receptor”—a molecule my lab discovered in the ‘90s, which controls tumor cell death by the immune system. As a physician-scientist, it is exciting to have a basic science discovery move from your lab into clinical testing with the potential of eventually helping patients.