Kojo Elenitoba-Johnson, MD

Establishing a career as a hematopathologist can be difficult for some since the majority of the effort occurs behind the scenes and does not involve direct contact with patients. However, for Lymphoma Research Foundation (LRF) Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) member Kojo Elenitoba-Johnson, MD, hematopathology encompasses the "leading edge of research in oncologic pathology."

"Several of the novel insights that have been gained about cancers have originated in hematopathology," he said. "You are very connected to the physicians and your work offers information that is very relevant to patient management. The hematopathology field has also benefitted from close links to basic scientists, particularly immunologists and geneticists. As a researcher, I am quite excited and enthusiastic about being part of this discovery process."

Dr. Elenitoba-Johnson began his training as a medical student at the College of Medicine, University of Lagos, Nigeria. He then completed his residency training in Anatomic and Clinical Pathology at Brown University School of Medicine as well as a fellowship in Hematopathology at the National Cancer Institute/National Institutes of Health, under the direction of Dr. Elaine Jaffe.

During his training, Dr. Elenitoba-Johnson was intrigued by all of the new technology surrounding lymphoma diagnosis and categorization. Hematopathologists were starting to routinely use a technique called immunophenotyping to study the proteins of cells and properly classify blood cell-related cancers.

"I was more and more curious about being able to recognize the tumors, and discover that different characteristics correlated with the different malignancies," he said. "I started getting curious about the biologic alterations at the genetic level that led to the lymphoma, so I thought that it would be a good idea to study lymphomas using the new molecular biologic techniques that were being developed at the time."

Currently, Dr. Elenitoba-Johnson's research focuses on finding genetic events that occur in malignant lymphoma. He also utilizes a new technology called proteomics to comprehensively identify proteins expressed by specific types of lymphomas. Proteomics allows Dr. Elenitoba-Johnson to "annotate the proteins and provide us with the opportunity to identify a lymphoma specifically, create more accurate diagnoses, and enable researchers to find unique targets for treatment."

Looking back on his career, Dr. Elenitoba-Johnson is most proud of three discoveries.

"My laboratory was able to show that a form of follicular lymphoma, which is characterized by an uncommon histologic pattern, called monocytoid differentiation, was actually follicular lymphoma and not another disease," he said. "I also discovered that the tumor suppressor gene p16 was frequently targeted by genetic deletions, and that this event is important in the transformation of follicular lymphoma to an aggressive diffuse large B-cell lymphoma. I'm also proud of our studies showing that deregulation of growth factor and cytokine signaling pathways contribute to follicular lymphoma transformation."

The first discovery was important because by a different morphologic expression of the same disease and eliminating the possibility of a different diagnosis, Dr. Elenitoba-Johnson enabled physicians to treat these patients more correctly and effectively. The other discoveries aided researchers in knowing that transformed follicular lymphoma is a "complex disease that affects many genetic processes and is more aggressive than follicular lymphoma."

Dr. Elenitoba-Johnson has been the recipient of a number of awards, including the Outstanding Teaching Award in Anatomic Pathology from University of Utah (1999 and 2003) and the Ramzi Cotran Young Investigator Award from the United States and Canadian Academy of Pathology in 2006. He is a member of the American Society for Clinical Investigation (2011) and will be awarded the American Society for Investigative Pathology Outstanding Investigator Award in 2012.

Speaking of his experience with LRF's SAB, Dr. Elenitoba-Johnson said his favorite part about being a member is the diversity of the group and the collaborations it has fostered.

"Even though lymphoma is considered to be one disease by people who are not familiar with it, it is actually a myriad of diseases, and the SAB has representation from all of the subspecialties," he said. "To be able to interact with these highly accomplished individuals is very rewarding for me. It not only keeps me updated, it helps refine my ideas and ask pertinent questions about the pathogenesis of lymphoma."

When asked for his best advice to a newly diagnosed lymphoma patient, Dr. Elenitoba-Johnson stressed the importance of obtaining a second opinion from an expert in lymphoma diagnoses.

"The single most critical thing that you can do is to establish the correct diagnosis, which predicts how you will be treated, or not treated if you don't actually have lymphoma."

To learn more about the LRF research program, or the research and investigators supported by the Foundation please click here.

To read about other Featured LRF Researchers, click here.