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Ajay K. Gopal, MD

Reflecting on his role as a lymphoma physician researcher, Ajay K. Gopal, MD, said the process of "going from seeing a patient in the clinic to understanding the biology of the disease and ultimately addressing the clinical need" keeps him engaged and excited about his work. The two-time Lymphoma Research Foundation (LRF) Mantle Cell Lymphoma Initiative Award recipient has had a busy 2011, leading and collaborating on several groundbreaking publications related to his work in targeted radiation immunotherapy.

In July, Dr. Gopal was the first author on a study published in the prestigious journal Blood examining a new treatment regimen for patients with persistent high-risk B-cell lymphoma with the drugs 90Y-ibritumomab tiuxetan and fludarabine alongside non-myeloablative allogeneic transplantation (NMAT). After treating 40 patients in the trial and following their disease progression for five years, the team determined that not only is adding 90Y-ibritumomab tiuxetan to NMAT safe, but it also showed beneficial effects on disease progression and control.

Under the tutelage of LRF Scientific Advisory Board Past Chair Oliver Press, MD, PhD, Dr. Gopal has established himself as an esteemed lymphoma clinician. He received his medical degree from Emory University School of Medicine and completed a residency in Internal Medicine at Duke University School of Medicine, where he was selected Assistant Chief Resident. From there, he did his fellowship in Medical Oncology at the University of Washington, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Working on projects alongside another LRF grantee, John Pagel, MD, PhD, Dr. Gopal enjoys "maintaining different types of knowledge to manage such a diverse group of diseases."

Another project Dr. Gopal, his team and others contributed to was a collaboration with industry for the development of brentuximab vedotin, SGN-35, a drug recently approved by the FDA for treatment of Hodgkin lymphoma (HL) and anaplastic large cell lymphoma (ALCL). In addition, he is also looking into low intensity regiments such as oral therapies to treat indolent lymphomas "like we treat hypertension."

"We might not cure the disease or induce rapid response, but with minimal side effects, we might find that over time, the disease is no longer life-threatening," Dr. Gopal said. "We can hopefully keep the disease in check rather than taking a larger risk with a more toxic treatment regimen."

Lastly, Dr. Gopal is investigating better chemotherapy combinations. "We still rely a lot on chemotherapeutics and we need to replace some of those more toxic in-patient regimens with less toxic out-patient ones," he said.

Dr. Gopal has presented on the status of his projects at past Mantle Cell Lymphoma Consortium (MCLC) Scientific Workshops, and he continues to return to the annual meeting for the collegiality and accessible environment.

"The MCLC has really been one of the most enjoyable groups for me to work with," he said. "It is a forum where you can speak with everyone from very basic investigators all the way to my multi-center clinical trial colleagues. The meetings are totally open and there is no push to speak in one direction or another."

Dr. Gopal reflected on the difficulty of conducting clinical research in a time of diminishing Federal funding and said that funding from LRF is "instrumental in maintaining the continued advancement of the field."

"I cannot understate the importance of this grant from the LRF," he said. "Times are tough and getting tougher for Federally-funded research, especially clinical research, and LRF filled the gap. I might not be doing what I'm doing today had it not been for the two grants I got from the LRF."

When asked for his best advice for a newly diagnosed lymphoma patient, Dr. Gopal echoed the advice of past featured researchers by emphasizing the importance of seeing a lymphoma specialist, yet he also stressed the benefits of participating in clinical trials.

"See someone who understands the spectrum of disease that is lymphoma," he said. "Clinical trials offer the best option to get the most cutting edge approaches, but make sure to inquire before starting any therapy if possible. All too often a patient gets seen and started on CHOP [chemotherapy] and then isn't eligible for a trial."

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