Daniel P. Petrylak, MD
Although he held a longtime fascination with space exploration to the moon and Mars, Daniel P. Petrylak, MD, took a different path and broke new ground in another frontier: genitourinary oncology. A job in a lab while he was still in his teens launched a career aimed at improving treatments for patients with bladder and prostate cancers.
Petrylak, now 59, grew up in Queens, New York—mostly in Whitestone—and is a self-professed New Yorker through and through. His parents wholeheartedly supported his and his brother’s endeavors, stressing education most of all. “They sacrificed an awful lot, and I am forever indebted to what they did for us. Education, doing well, and exceeding was the most important thing [to them],” Petrylak says.
Although he was always interested in science and was particularly drawn to space science in the 1960s, Petrylak chose to apply his scientific mind to research in medicine. “We can better our lives and better ourselves with new discoveries and trying to use knowledge to help patients or to help society overall,” he says.
Today, Petrylak continues to put that philosophy into action as a professor of medicine (medical oncology) and urology and as co-director of the Signal Transduction Research Program at Yale Cancer Center in New Haven, Connecticut.
Petrylak's career began early. At just 16, he started working in a laboratory in New York under protozoologist Seymour Hutner, PhD. He was “a very interesting character,” Petrylak says, and taught him much more than science; he covered literature and music in his mentorship, as well.
Hutner himself had an interesting mentor who also indirectly influenced Petrylak: James B. Sumner, PhD, the first to crystallize the jack-bean urease enzyme. In 1946, Sumner won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work in crystallizing enzymes, proving that enzymes are proteins.
Under Hutner’s guidance, Petrylak learned that any research or knowledge you gain doesn’t mean anything unless you can apply it to people. Internalizing this message, Petrylak decided to go to medical school, completing his bachelor of arts degree at Columbia College and his medical degree at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. He ultimately chose to specialize in oncology because of the research aspect and its promise of new discoveries to help patients. “Years ago, oncology was almost like voodoo magic; there weren’t great treatments and patients died,” he explains. “So, what better field to explore, especially one in which you can apply your scientific knowledge, to try and improve treatments?”
After graduating from medical school, Petrylak embarked on a 3-year fellowship at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) alongside Howard I. Scher, MD. At the time, Scher was focused on using biology to improve treatments, which taught Petrylak a lot about how to approach novel methods of treating patients. Then, in 1991, Petrylak moved to Columbia University as an assistant professor of medicine and had the good fortune to work with Alan Yagoda, MD. Yagoda had trained several preeminent genitourinary oncologists, including Scher; Cora N. Sternberg, MD; and Dean F. Bajorin, MD. While at MSK in the 1980s, Yagoda, along with Scher and Sternberg, developed MVAC (methotrexate, vinblastine, Adriamycin, and cisplatin) chemo-therapy for patients with bladder cancer. “It was an incredible experience working with [Yagoda]. He could generate numerous ideas; just sitting and talking with him was an unbe-lievable experience,” Petrylak says.
For a week during his fellowship at MSK, Petrylak joined Yagoda for rounds. At Columbia, Yagoda provided guidance for Petrylak’s career, encouraging him to work on clinical trials, give lectures, and put his name out in the academic sphere so that people would become familiar with him. He often repeated this advice: “Work on prostate cancer; nobody’s working on it.”
Sadly, Yagoda died suddenly in 1995. “There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about him,” Petrylak says of the man who was a key inspirational force behind his ultimate career choice.
Accomplishments With Docetaxel
During the course of his career, Petrylak has been heavily involved in researching treatments for patients with bladder and prostate cancers. “[For prostate cancer], if you go back to the 1990s, there was nothing that worked for castration-resistant disease. We’ve seen a tremendous amount of progress,” he says.