What would you do if you had only one year to live?
For most people, that’s a hypothetical question, a playful way to consider what’s really meaningful in life. For Mark G. Kris’ patients, the dilemma is nearly always reality—and their typical answer is not what many might expect.
“People have the idea that, if they were told they had a serious illness, they’d quit their job, take a cruise, and move to Bora Bora,” said the renowned physician and researcher who specializes in thoracic cancers. “That’s hogwash. People want to experience those things they think are important—usually family, home, and pets. They want their life to go on, even if it’s radically changed, if they can still enjoy the things that are important to them.”
Kris, who is chief of the Thoracic Oncology Service and an attending physician at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) as well as a professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, has dedicated the past 30 years to helping patients meet that goal.
The 60-year-old lifelong New Yorker conducts clinical research focused around the development of biologically based treatments that attack lung cancer, tests for new anticancer treatments, and therapies that combine surgery, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy.
Specifically, Kris conducted clinical trials as part of the development of gefitinib (Iressa), an epidermal growth factor receptor inhibitor that the FDA approved in 2003 for patients with advanced non-small cell lung cancer. His team at MSKCC was the first to notice that some patients with that disease who had exhausted all other treatment options responded dramatically well to Iressa. The same year the drug was approved, Kris said, the team was among those who discovered the mutations that caused sensitivity to the drug.
More recently, Kris helped bring about the FDA’s August 2011 approval of crizotinib (Xalkori), a drug for patients with late-stage non-small cell lung cancer who have mutations in the anaplastic lymphoma kinase (ALK) gene. During its development, Kris advised Pfizer Inc and treated clinical trial participants with the drug, which was approved along with a diagnostic test to determine whether patients have the ALK mutation. Because of Xalkori, Kris said, an additional 10,000 cases of lung cancer each year will be treatable.