Racing toward a cure

Emmanuel Katsanis, MD, with Azayliah D. Perez
Emmanuel Katsanis, MD, with Azayliah D. Perez

Emmanuel Katsanis, MD, has spent the better part of four decades on the leading edge of cancer research. Some of his greatest breakthroughs have occurred while wearing running shoes.

Dr. Katsanis grew up with two loves in his life: medical research and distance running. As a teenager in Greece, he was the nation's 800-meter champion and an Olympic hopeful. When he arrived at the National University of Athens, his track coach told him he had a great deal of promise, but that he would need to choose between rigorous twice-a-day training or dedicate himself full-time to his studies.

"It was a no-brainer," Dr. Katsanis said. "I was either going to be a doctor or a runner, and I wasn't going to be a professional runner."

So, from the age of 19 through his residency at the University of Ottawa in Canada, Dr. Katsanis was among the most diligent, talented researchers in his class, having five first-author publications as a pediatric resident. He earned high marks and fielded offers from the most prestigious pediatric health centers in the world — including a rare, on-the-spot job offer from the Children's Hospital in Philadelphia in 1987.

But Dr. Katsanis was attracted to a cutting-edge area of research that was still in its developing stages — bone marrow transplants (BMT).

He accepted a fellowship with the University of Minnesota, the site of the first successful bone marrow transplant in 1968. The idea of taking part in such a thrilling new field with limitless possibilities captured Dr. Katsanis' imagination.

"With BMT, you can destroy leukemia and install new blood and a new immune system to aid in the recovery and, in many cases, truly see a cure take place," Dr. Katsanis said.

In March, the University of Arizona Cancer Center named Dr. Katsanis the program director of its Blood and Marrow Transplantation program. This marks the first time that the Cancer Center's adult and pediatric programs will be under consolidated leadership, which spans the UA Departments of Medicine and Pediatrics, as well as the Sections of Hematology-Oncology and Pediatric Hematology-Oncology.

"My goal is to build and grow our program, both in terms of basic and translational research," Dr. Katsanis said. "I will put a lot of effort into bringing new ideas here that will eventually become significant advancements in our field."

As the program director, Dr. Katsanis will guide the integration of the adult and pediatric BMT programs, while maintaining separate clinical services for adult and pediatric patients.

Dr. Katsanis has been a UACC member since 1997. As a physician-scientist, Dr. Katsanis provides clinical care for children with cancer and blood disorders and conducts research at the University of Arizona Steele Children's Research Center. He currently serves on National Institute of Health grant study sections, numerous international granting organizations and on journal editorial boards.

During his time as a pediatric oncologist, Dr. Katsanis has provided care for children with cancer and other blood diseases at the University of Arizona Medical Center – Diamond Children's, and the Hematology/Oncology/BMT Clinic, an outpatient clinic housed within UAMC.

In addition to his clinical duties, Dr. Katsanis is a professor of pediatrics, medicine, pathology and immunobiology and an associate chair for research in the Department of Pediatrics. He is also the Louise Thomas Chair in Pediatric Cancer Research at the Steele Center and the director of the MD-PhD Program for the UA College of Medicine.

He hopes to develop a cutting-edge clinical trials program that will help put the UA Cancer Center's BMT program on the map. It's a field with endless possibilities for innovation, particularly in an academic medical center. As the program continues to strengthen its bonds, both within the UACC and with the BMT field at large, Dr. Katsanis wants to develop clinical trials that will separate his program from other institutions.

"Just in the time that I've been studying bone and blood marrow transplants, we've seen countless innovations," Dr. Katsanis said. "When I began, you couldn't do transplants in anyone older than 55. Now, we're seeing successful transplants for a patient in his or her 70s. With a deeper understanding of the immune system, along with advances in antibiotics, anti-viral and anti-fungal drugs, we're able to administer much more personalized care for each patient."

That personalized care begins in the lab with painstaking research.

Long before the sun rises, researchers are often hard at work either running experiments or writing grants until long after sundown. It's a process that shares striking similarities with
Dr. Katsanis' other love — distance running.

After a lengthy hiatus away from the track, he rediscovered his love for running at the tail end of his time in Ottawa. He found that his research and focus improved as he maintained a steady running regimen.

In fact, as recently as three years ago, Dr. Katsanis broke three hours in a marathon in Sacramento. He's still among the top runners in his age group and he completed his first Boston Marathon in April.

"Running, research — it's just like anything else," Dr. Katsanis said. "If you work hard enough and take a long-term view instead of agonizing over the short-term setbacks, you can accomplish anything you set your mind to."

-Nick Prevenas, May 30, 2012