Sonali M. Smith, MD
Dr. Smith's career and research has focused on improving treatment options and outcomes for lymphoma patients in a variety of ways. As Associate Professor of Medicine and Director of the Lymphoma Program at the University of Chicago, her primary research involves writing early phase trials to test new therapies for patients with relapsed or refractory (unresponsive to treatment) lymphomas. More recently, she has become interested in researching patient prognosis, studying the interaction between the environment and biologic features of a person's lymphoma. She is working with colleagues at the University of Chicago to help build a biobank that collects patient tissue and blood samples as well as information about their diet, lifestyle, and other factors that might influence the growth (or lack thereof) of their cancer. "We hope that 'connecting the dots' in these factors will help us understand why prognosis differs between patients," Dr. Smith says, "and more importantly, if there is something a patient can modify to impact the pace of the disease."
Dr. Smith was drawn to lymphoma research through her mentor, Dr. John Ultmann, a significant figure in the development of staging as a guide for treatment and the effort to distinguish different types of lymphomas. "He had an incredible bedside manner and was passionate about the field," Dr. Smith says. She was also attracted to lymphoma as a disease which afflicted people of all ages and over a period of many years, allowing her to build long-term relationships with patients from all different walks of life. In an extension of her work with patients, Dr. Smith served as co-chair of LRF's North American Educational Forum in September 2013.
In addition to the "very rewarding" work of teaching and educating patients, Dr. Smith is a member of LRF's Scientific Advisory Board (SAB). She notes that LRF has been "incredibly valuable to [her] career" by providing a venue to build and foster relationships with others in the field, including SAB Chair John P. Leonard, MD of Weill Cornell and past SAB Chair Bruce D. Cheson, MD, of Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, who are collaborating with her on current research. "Clinical research, and research in general, is best done as part of a team," she adds. Dr. Smith advises researchers beginning their careers to develop their own team building skills and relationships, an effort she herself is aiding by participating as faculty in LRF's Clinical Research Mentoring Program (LCRMP) in February 2014. She further advises younger researchers to find something that they feel passionate about in their research and to think carefully about designing research and clinical trials that will truly impact the lymphoma field. "Patients and their tissues are precious resources, and careful design of clinical trials that respects these resources is critical," she notes.
Entering the lymphoma field in 1998, Dr. Smith has both witnessed and helped contribute to major changes in how lymphoma is understood and treated. Knowledge of and treatment for T-cell lymphomas has expanded considerably since she began seeing patients, with the development of oral agents, both those currently available and those still in development, marks a "big advance" for patients with all types of lymphoma. "These agents are not only highly targeted, but have the potential to start eliminating standard chemotherapy from treatment approaches," she adds. Dr. Smith advises patients with new lymphoma diagnoses to develop a comfortable and trusting relationship with their treatment team, as well as to seek out knowledge from reputable sources to understand their specific lymphoma and its treatment options.
As further illustration of how far lymphoma treatments have come, Dr. Smith tells the story of a man in his early 60's, one of the first patients she encountered with mantle cell lymphoma (MCL). At that time, the disease had only been identified as a distinct subtype for a short time and it was believed that most patients would not survive more than 3-5 years. "We are now more than 10 years out from his treatment, and he is a grandfather and doing just fine," she says. "I know that if we met today, I would be giving him a much better prognosis and that the number of treatment options... are increasingly effective."
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.