Robert Baiocchi, MD, PhD

Dr. Robert Baiocchi, MD, PhD joined the faculty at The Ohio State University in 2005 and is currently an Associate Professor in the Division of Hematology in the Department of Internal Medicine.

Drawn to the study of lymphoma during his graduate studies at Roswell Park Cancer Institute under Dr. Michael Caligiuri, Dr. Baiocchi explains that it was here he "witnessed the outcomes of translational medicine first hand." He remembers "being fascinated by seeing how basic scientific discovery could impact the lives of patients." Dr. Caligiuri's outstanding mentorship led Dr. Baiocchi to complete a PhD and post doctoral fellowship studying the immune surveillance of EBV-associated lymphomas and to continue onto medical school to pursue training in Internal medicine and medical oncology where I have remained engaged in translational lymphoma research."

Dr. Baiocchi's current research is focused on three areas: "studying the basic mechanisms that cause lymphomas to develop, finding new treatments for patients with lymphoma and understanding how to harness the body's immune system to prevent and treat the disease." In line with this Dr. Baiocchi's lab has "developed models to study the cancer epigenome (chemical changes to the DNA) as B cells make the transition from normal growth to malignant transformation. These models have allowed us to discover how the PRMT5 enzyme becomes dysregulated (over expressed) and works to turn off genes that regulate cell growth and survival." Fortunately for lymphoma patients they found that "this new oncogenic (cancer causing) pathway to be operable in many types of lymphomas, including MCL and diffuse large B cell lymphomas." These basic scientific experiments led Dr. Baiocchi's lab to "develop a drug to selectively target PRMT5 enzyme activity in lymphomas, a strategy that we are attempting to translate into the clinic as a new treatment for patients with lymphoma." In terms of their work on finding new treatments, he explains that "work in this area has focused on discovering new targets expressed in lymphoma and developing new strategies to hit these novel targets. We are currently exploring new drugs that target the epigenome (PRMT5 inhibitors), protein synthetic machinery (silvestrol) and surface proteins (CD74) of the lymphoma cell. The stage of development of each of these drugs ranges from early preclinical (PRMT5 inhibitors) to phase I/II clinical trials (milatuzumab, anti CD74)." Dr. Baiocchi is also collaborating with several laboratories at Ohio State University to "develop a vaccine to prevent EBV-driven lymphomas and use silvestrol, a natural substance that was discovered to directly kill lymphoma cells while simultaneously boosting the immunity to drive anti lymphoma immune responses in vivo."

The potential impact of all of this intensive research is in the area of infection and hopefully, to offer new therapies to patients with lymphoma. Dr. Baiocchi explains that "infection remains one of the most challenging aspects of oncology care, largely due to the immune suppressive effects of current therapies (chemotherapy, radiation). We believe that drugs like silvestrol that directly kill tumor cells while boosting anti tumor immunity can offer patients a unique opportunity to eradicate disease while promoting life-long immune memory against their cancer." He adds that the "discovery of new epigenetic targets like PRMT5 have led us to develop a selective drug that is only expressed in tumor. This new drug reprograms the malignant lymphoma cell by restoring critical checkpoints that regulate the cell cycle, B cell receptor pathway, and death pathways."

With reference to the impact that LRF has had toward his research progress to date, Dr. Baiocchi states that the Foundation's Mantle Cell Consortium (MCLC) program "has been critical to funding research that may have been considered high risk by the National Institute of Health (NIH)." Adding that "the funding received by LRF has helped us identify a novel oncogenic pathway operable in MCL as well as other lymphomas and solid tumors. This early start helped initiate many collaborations within and outside of our university." In terms of the impact LRF has had on his career, he explains that "my involvement in LRF has put me in direct contact with some of the best lymphoma scientists and physicians worldwide. Several of these contacts have translated into scientific collaborations and grant opportunities that have become invaluable. LRF also provided me with support at a critical time in my career development allowing me to become involved with a new arena of medicine, drug development. This activity has become a central theme in each of the areas of focus of the lab and has led to other exciting career opportunities."

Reflecting on his career in lymphoma research, Dr. Baiocchi states that "I've come to realize that I'm privileged to have a job where I can care for patients, run a research program, teach and mentor young physicians and scientists in training, and develop new approaches to treat lymphoma patients."

Dr. Baiocchi's advice for those living with lymphoma and young researchers:

What advice would you give to someone recently diagnosed with lymphoma?

Given the complexity of diseases like MCL, I believe it's essential to be evaluated by a team dedicated to diagnosis and treatment of lymphoma. Most Comprehensive Cancer Centers have disease focused teams that offer a variety of well designed clinical trials. It's important to keep in mind that many lymphomas remain incurable so for challenging diseases like mantle cell lymphoma, the only "standard" approach should be treatment on a clinical trial.

What three key pieces of advice would you give to a researcher just starting out in their career?

  • 'Pay back' the outstanding mentorship you've received by mentoring others. The achievements of your students will only promote your own success.
  • Don't settle for "more realistic" career goals just because they are less risky. Allow your passion to drive your career pathway.
  • Stay connected to the clinic as your patients will always provide you with the inspiration to stay on track and remain motivated.

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