A Man of Many Battles: Genitourinary Expert Spurs Advances Amid Challenges

Beth Fand Incollingo @fandincollingo
Published: Monday, Nov 12, 2012
Dr. Nicholas J. Vogelzang from the Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada

Photo courtesy of Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada

Nicholas J. Vogelzang, MD
Nicholas Vogelzang knows what it’s like to start over.

During his career as a medical oncologist and researcher, the genitourinary expert has tackled several ventures, including a bold departure from a long-term university post to join a startup cancer center, as well as his current roles at Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada (CCCN), where he treats patients, and US Oncology in Houston, Texas, where he helps lead clinical research.

In his personal life, the 62-year-old has weathered a cardiac bypass, divorce, the loss of a child, a battle with Hodgkin disease, and his wife’s recent battle with sarcoma.

So, when it comes to helping patients fight for another chance at life, Vogelzang is prepared.

“Cancer can be treated; it can be maintained and controlled,” the doctor said. “That’s what I tell patients: ‘If you want to fight this cancer, I’ll fight alongside you.’”

Vogelzang helps about 100 patients each week to wage that battle. Most of those he treats have prostate cancer, and the others have kidney, bladder, or testicular cancers—or mesothelioma, an area of expertise left over from Vogelzang’s early years as a lung cancer specialist. It’s typical for the doctor’s patients to hail from as far away as southwestern California, Washington, Idaho, New Mexico, and Utah.

Vogelzang touches the lives of additional cancer patients through his involvement in the design of clinical trials, and as part of the steering committees for large pharmaceutical- sponsored phase III trials. He serves as vice chair of the SWOG (formerly the Southwest Oncology Group) Genitourinary Committee, and serves on US Oncology’s Research Executive Committee, as co-chair of its Genitourinary Committee, and as chair of its Developmental Therapeutic Committee. Vogelzang also helps hatch clinical trial design ideas as a member of 10 pharmaceutical advisory boards.

Through those efforts, the award-winning doctor and researcher, who also lectures around the world and finds time for membership in a dizzying number of medical advisory committees, has changed the course of cancer treatment by helping to develop therapies for prostate cancer, kidney cancer, bladder cancer, testicular cancer, and mesothelioma.

Research Achievements Mount

During two decades at the University of Chicago, Vogelzang conducted studies in mesothelioma, culminating in the February 2004 approval of the chemotherapy agent pemetrexed disodium (Alimta) (J Clin Oncol. 2003; 21(14):2636-44).

The drug was approved in combination with cisplatin for patients with malignant pleural mesothelioma who have unresectable disease or are not otherwise candidates for curative surgery. Vogelzang’s multicenter, randomized trial that led to the approval demonstrated that pemetrexed and cisplatin added a statistically significant survival advantage for those patients as compared with cisplatin alone. “Still, nearly nine years later, it remains the standard of care,” Vogelzang said.

Vogelzang is proud to have been on the advisory board for, and a contributor to, studies that led to the April 2011 approval of the hormonal treatment abiraterone (Zytiga); the drug, given in combination with prednisone, has changed the treatment paradigm for patients with metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer who have previously taken docetaxel.

In addition, the doctor’s research into the antineoplastic drug mitoxantrone helped pave the way for its 1996 FDA approval as the first nonhormonal therapy for the treatment of prostate cancer. While the results weren’t earth-shaking for patients, Vogelzang said, they made a big difference in the path of prostate cancer research.

“Mitoxantrone wasn’t very effective, but it did allow us to then compare that drug to docetaxel,” leading to the standardchanging establishment of the taxane as a treatment for prostate cancer, he said.

Vogelzang, who enrolled more patients in clinical trials last year than any other doctor at US Oncology, has also helped to launch three patient support groups: Us TOO, for prostate cancer patients; the Kidney Cancer Association; and the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation.

Nicholas J. Vogelzang, MD . . .

Dr. Nick Vogelzang
  • Is devoted to his five children and his seven grandchildren, who range in age from 1 to 10.
  • Is “addicted” to reading, particularly autobiographies and histories such as Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand. “When I have the chance, I’ll read all night,” he said. “I have to be careful about how many books I read, so I don’t get too tied up and get behind on my real work.”
  • Enjoys riding his road bike between 60 and 100 miles a week in the Nevada desert and mountains.
  • Is of Dutch heritage, and grew up “attending tulip festivals and wearing a little Dutch hat and little wooden shoes.”
  • Held a series of less-than-ideal jobs during high school and college, including cleaning out dry-cleaning vats, scrubbing toilets and floors, and working at a plant testing plaster mixed with asbestos. As someone who now treats mesothelioma, frequently caused by asbestos exposure, Vogelzang sees “the irony” in that experience. “At the time, I had no idea” that asbestos was dangerous, he said. “The plant manager was a member of our church, and I was happy to have a job.”
  • Is a survivor of Hodgkin disease.
  • Has served on numerous committees of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), and won the organization’s Statesman Award in June 2007.
  • Firmly supports ASCO’s August clinical provision report published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, which says that PSA screening should be strongly considered for certain groups at high risk for prostate cancer. “It’s more nuanced than the bludgeoning approach of the US Preventive Services Task Force, which is ‘don’t screen.’ That approach is not smart, because medicine is not black and white,” Vogelzang said. “For a patient truly at risk because of genetics or race, the PSA test should be ordered so the patient can make a decision for or against active treatment. The problem to avoid is being overly aggressive with our treatments, not our screenings.”
  • Sees immunotherapy as well as the genetic profiling of cancers as the most important frontiers to be tackled by today’s cancer researchers.
  • Is grateful to his wife, children, and grandchildren for “not giving up on me in spite of the long hours I work,” and to “the patients, who are enormously stimulating, kind, and thoughtful. Their courage encourages me every day.
“I put in a lot of time,” he said, “but patients needed to be empowered. They help raise money and give emotional, physical, and financial support to other patients. They’re very important groups.”

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