Pursuing an Ethic of Service: Lung Cancer Researcher Noted for Drug Discovery, Charitable Works

Beth Fand Incollingo
Published Online: Tuesday, March 13, 2012
Dr. Mark G. Kris Mark G. Kris, MD
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.

Kris believes an additional 10,000 cases of lung cancer each year will be treatable because of crizotinib, which he helped develop.
Throughout his career, Kris has remained committed to treating the whole patient. That has translated into an ongoing effort to develop drugs to control nausea caused by cancer treatment. Toward that goal, Kris was involved in the testing on humans of drugs that had been developed for other purposes, including agents that block the seratonin receptor, steroids, and aprepitant. As combination therapy, such medications have been successful in controlling the debilitating emesis that once haunted lung cancer patients treated with medications such as cisplatin.

While the doctor is still deeply troubled by the lack of widely successful curative measures for people with lung cancer, he recognizes that his contributions have helped bring about an enormous change in the patient experience.

“I lost a patient recently after three years of metastatic lung cancer, and the sad thing is he was lost,” Kris said. “But his first time in the hospital was in the days before his death. When I began in this field, every patient was in the hospital to get treatment, for complications of treatment, over and over again. The disruption of your life was so much more, and the average length of life has expanded tremendously, from months to years. It’s been a very dramatic change.”

How Role Models Shaped Career

It’s really no surprise that Kris found his way from his childhood in Buffalo, New York, to a career in oncology.

The youngster who excelled in chemistry and biology was exposed to the field when his father, a chemist, and his mother, a nurse, took jobs in a cancer hospital. His perspective was also shaped by his years at a high school run by the Jesuits, an order of Catholic priests.

“Their message is that service to others is incredibly important, and that that needs to be part of your life,” said Kris, who recently won a Humanitarian Award— the first ever given by the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO)—for his work as a volunteer helping victims of natural disasters, including hurricanes Rita and Katrina.

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