Bloomfield Challenged Status Quo for Patients With Leukemia and Women in Science

Gina Columbus @ginacolumbusonc
Published: Sunday, Apr 09, 2017
Clara D. Bloomfield, MD

Clara D. Bloomfield, MD

One day after school, a second-grader informed her mother that she was going to be a nurse when she grew up. To this, her mother responded, “You’re going to be a nurse? Then you might as well be a doctor.”

That moment helped lead to a monumental career path in myeloid neoplasms for Clara D. Bloomfield, MD, whose accomplishments include contributing to the discovery of the Philadelphia chromosome in patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), describing the rearrangement of chromosome 16q22 in acute myeloid leukemia (AML), and discovering that AML could be cured, even in elderly patients.

Those achievements took place on a road not easily traveled and often filled with criticism. Yet today, the veteran oncologist and Giants of Cancer Care® award recipient is known for not only changing practice in her field, but also for being an influential mentor who knows how to push past the tightest of boundaries.

A World of Academia

Leukemia influenced Bloomfield early on in her childhood. “When I was in grade school, I had classmates who died of leukemia,” explained Bloomfield, who grew up in Champaign, Illinois. “When the child was diagnosed, he or she would be sent off to the National Cancer Institute, because that was really the only place that was great for taking care of kids with leukemia.”

Time would pass, and Bloomfield and her classmates would be informed that another peer had died. “This seemed, to me, like something that would be a great thing to be able to do something about—that I could really make a difference, that I could basically cure this incurable disease,” she said. “That is how I got interested in it.”

After her father’s service in World War II, he began his academic career as a professor of labor and industrial relations at the University of Illinois. Bloomfield, then 4 years old, spent much time on the campus as she grew up. “When you grow up in academia, and you know what it’s all about—asking questions and discovering new things—it’s a big advantage,” Bloomfield said.

She attended the University of Wisconsin for her undergraduate work, where an interest in genetics peaked during her junior year studying fruit flies. She attended the University of Chicago for medical school. After she completed medical school and her internship, she moved to the University of Minnesota for her second-year medicine residency and a fellowship in medical oncology.

Exploring the Field

Even if she did not recognize it, Bloomfield decided early in her career to research leukemias and lymphomas. During the second year of her fellowship, she was in the running for a national scholarship from the American Cancer Society. She was to be interviewed by a physician who treated patients with leukemia and had to describe her future research goals.

“I have to tell you, I never thought about it,” Bloomfield recalled. “I thought, ‘I’m going to look terrible. I better come up with something in a hurry.’”

Bloomfield told the researcher she was interested in the characteristics of individual leukemic and lymphoma cells and how those might predict outcomes in response to treatment.

As it turned out, “that’s what I did, and have done the rest of my life,” Bloomfield said.

Her first project was to review 10 years of cases of adults with AML. “All of the patients had died. But, I learned things that were very important that I immediately then began to investigate and publish on,” said Bloomfield.

One of these findings included Bloomfield’s discovery that patients with AML could be treated aggressively and eventually cured. The disease was, at the time, believed to be incurable, especially in elderly patients.

Instinctively, the young, female researcher challenged this belief in a paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. “Suddenly, there was someone they had never heard of saying that not treating older AML patients was wrong, which was sort of a big deal,” Bloomfield said.

It was an even bigger deal when she was proved right. In light of her finding and while still a fellow, the University of Minnesota tapped Bloomfield to lead the Leukemia/Lymphoma Service at the institution, which she headed until her departure in 1989. The center also promoted her from assistant to full professor within 7 years, making her the first female full professor of medicine at the university.

Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York, was Bloomfield’s next career stop as the chair of the Department of Medicine. In 1997, she joined The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center (OSUCCC) and James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute, in Columbus, Ohio, where she became the third woman to ever direct a National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center.

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