Five Questions With: Dr. Gerald A. Colvin

Cancer surgeon Dr. Gerald A. Colvin joined CharterCARE Medical Associates, part of CharterCARE Health Partners, in July. He brings years of experience to his new role, having served as director of the hematology and oncology program at South County Medical Group, and as a faculty member at both the Warren Alpert School of Medicine at Brown University and Boston University School of Medicine. 

PBN: What draws you to the field of oncology, and are there certain types of cancer that you specialize in? 

COLVIN: I was drawn to the field of hematology/oncology early in my career as a first-year resident in internal medicine, fresh out of medical school while working at Maimonides Medical Center. I was chosen to take care of a patient who was stricken with acute myelogenous leukemia while she was admitted in the hospital for eight weeks. It showed me the power of chemotherapy to cure deadly disease and at the same time ravage one’s own immune system, bringing the patient close to death due to infections prior to immune system recovery. That experience impacted me profoundly, and I knew then where I wanted to focus my training and ultimately my career.

During my training, I had a focus in breast cancer and blood cancers. For the first 12 years in practice as an academic faculty member responsible for training fellows, it was important to take care of a wide variety of cancers so that the trainees get a balanced education and are able to take care of a wide variety of diseases when he/she completes the training. At the same time, due to my research in stem cell biology, I gravitated to treating the “liquid cancers” such as the leukemias, lymphomas and multiple myeloma. In addition, I was able to translate my murine work to human application and was involved in bone marrow transplant and cellular immunotherapy for a five-year period.

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PBN: Why did you decide to make the move to CharterCARE Health Partners? 

COLVIN: I was fortunate enough during my training to obtain a National Institutes of Health mentored training grant. It was a K08 grant that allowed me the opportunity for an intensive, supervised, research career-development experience. This set me on a path where I was able to continue groundbreaking research with the help of a COBRE grant and was able to publish more than 12 book chapters and 66 research manuscripts, as well as run many research clinical trials. During and after the recession of 2008, it became quite difficult to obtain research funding and with the family expanding, I felt it was time to become more clinically based.

I had been the medical director of a cancer center for a small community-based program for the last six years, which I really enjoyed but I craved returning to academic practice in some fashion. I missed interacting with trainees and colleagues. I was looking for a position that would allow me to combine my passion for clinical patient care and academic medicine. I have been quite impressed with what CharterCARE has become, which is a vibrant organization that has depth and infrastructure for both academic and community practice. CharterCARE, under the astute stewardship of Dr. Jeffrey Liebman [CEO], has been able to structure my new position to allow the best of both worlds for me.

PBN: Are you currently involved in any teaching or research projects? 

COLVIN: I am currently involved in teaching residents and fellows in medicine. There are a plethora of clinical and research projects and trials available for me to be a part of once I become more established in my new role.

PBN: Have any of your patients been infected with COVID-19? If so, what are you seeing in terms of how the virus affects people fighting cancer? 

COLVIN: The arrival of COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on every human on Earth to some extent, especially those vulnerable older individuals in our society. Cancer is generally an illness affecting our aged population. There have been many reports thus far on the ill effects the virus has on those patients with active malignancies.

Fortunately, those patients that I have taken care of afflicted with COVID-19 did not suffer serious effects. What I am seeing, however, is that those individuals with cancer have, in general, cut back on seeking care and tend to arrive in dire straits. Patients don’t want to come into the clinic due to fear of being exposed to COVID. But it is difficult to treat or diagnose an individual with leukemia over a telephonic and/or video platform.

PBN: Are there any investigational cancer treatments out there that have caught your eye, and does CharterCARE participate in clinical trials? 

COLVIN: My focus for the past 20 years has been in immunotherapy. My research focused on cellular immunotherapy, using the power of someone else’s immune system cells to recognize and kill cancer cells. With the advent and discoveries of how cancer cells evade the immune system and medicines to enhance our own immune system to recognize and kill cancer cells, this has been a game changer and has singlehandedly turned many cancers into chronic diseases, not unlike diabetes and hypertension, which are similarly treatable but not curable.

This is an exciting time to be an oncologist, as we are now being able to implement more and more targeted therapies and have lifesaving tools that we didn’t even have three years ago.

CharterCARE is at the forefront of innovative therapies in this realm locally and perhaps even regionally. They have created an Immune-Oncology Institute, which has a broad range of manufacturing, research and clinical trials. This includes CAR-T cellular therapy.

Elizabeth Graham is a PBN contributing writer.

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