A Man With Many Mentors Makes His Own Mark in Lung Cancer

Published: Sunday, Sep 04, 2016
John D. Minna, MD

John D. Minna, MD

For many physicians, regardless of specialty, the decision to pursue a medical career is made in childhood. For John D. Minna, MD, whose father had the largest family practice in San Diego and whose mother was the nurse who ran the office, his career path was cemented by the 500 house calls he went on with his dad when he was growing up. His career choice was a foregone conclusion.

The only question that remained was whether he would pursue academic medicine—something his father wanted for him—or whether he would become a practicing surgeon in his hometown— something his father’s friends (themselves surgeons) wanted him to do.

During the course of his studies at Stanford University School of Medicine, Minna found himself in the clinical and research laboratories of Henry S. Kaplan, MD, Saul A. Rosenberg, MD, and Leonard A. Herzenberg, PhD. They took Minna under their collective, and rather expansive, wings.

Kaplan was a pioneering radiologist and radiobiologist. Together with Edward Ginzton, they invented the first medical linear accelerator in the Western hemisphere. Rosenberg was a pioneer in lymphoma research. Herzenberg, in the Department of Genetics, was best known for developing and collaborating with his wife, Leonore, on the fluorescence-activated cell-sorter (FACS).

These were Minna’s mentors, and their effect on his medical career set the stage for his future endeavors in lung cancer.

Beyond Medical School

Today, Minna serves as the director of the Hamon Center for Therapeutic Oncology Research, The Moncrief Center for Cancer Genetics, and co-director of the Experimental Therapeutics Program for the recently National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center, at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. It is the only NCI-designated comprehensive cancer center in north Texas.

His research career began after he graduated from medical school and entered an intern and residency program at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), where he learned aspects of clinical medicine and made friendships that inspired his future work.

“It was amazing—the other interns and residents I was with. They turned out to be many of the future leaders of clinical medicine in the United States,” Minna said.

Following his time at MGH, he went on to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), as part of the United States Public Health Service, and joined the laboratory of Marshall Warren Nirenberg, PhD, the Nobel Prize-winning biochemist who had just cracked the genetic code. Coincidentally, also working in the same laboratory were other young postdoctoral fellows who would go on to become famous scientists and Nobel Prize winners, Alfred G. Gilman, MD, PhD, and Joseph Goldstein, MD.

Lucky Break

While he was conducting research in Nirenberg’s department, Minna also discussed his interest in cancer, developed during his tenure at Stanford Medical School, with Vincent T. DeVita Jr, MD, a 2013 Giants of Cancer Care award winner for his groundbreaking work in lymphoma, and his need to get more training.

“And then came a totally lucky break for me: Vince offered me a job almost on the spot—running the NCI Veterans Administration Medical Oncology Branch. Of course, I jumped at the chance, but I knew I needed a lot of help.”

DeVita suggested that Minna approach Paul A. Bunn Jr, MD, a 2014 Giants of Cancer Care winner in lung cancer, and Daniel C. Ihde, MD, who were just finishing their oncology fellowships. These two, along with Martin Cohen, MD, Mary Matthews, MD, and Desmond N. Carney, MD, PhD, taught Minna how to conduct clinical research. It was this group that focused primarily on lung cancer research.

Another major person in the equation was Eli Glatstein, MD, who had just come from Stanford University. He and Minna were both disciples of Henry Kaplan, and they formed a strong bond in clinical trials research at the NCI.

“Can you believe how lucky I was?” said Minna. “Here I am, in a brand new job with huge clinical research responsibilities, and I have Paul Bunn, Dan Ihde, Martin Cohen, Mary Matthews, and Eli Glatstein, not only on my team, but teaching me every step of the way.”

Genetic Studies of Lung Cancer

The laboratory research portion of Minna’s work, which had been focused on genetics in general, now switched to genetic studies of lung cancer specifically.

“Again, I realized there was no way I could do this alone, especially with all of the clinical responsibilities that came with the position. Fortunately, I had a great collaborator and pathologist, Adi Gazdar, MD, who was already part of the NCI and famous for his work on tumor viruses.”

Minna approached Gazdar to “roll the dice and tackle something entirely new” to set up a genetic studies lung cancer branch at NCI.


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