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Targeted Therapy for Cancer Patients

Since childhood, Edward Kim, ’96 MD, has had a calling for medicine. During his middle school and high school years in Terre Haute, Indiana, the future oncologist participated in numerous science fairs, with projects ranging from the artificial heart to cholesterol, some of which qualified for state competition.

But Kim also has a more personal reason for pursuing medicine. His younger brother, Donald, passed away in 1984 at age 12, due to a congenital heart condition.

Kim was attracted to Northwestern University mostly because of its accelerated seven-year undergraduate/medical degree Honors Program in Medical Education (HPME). “For me, HPME was a phenomenal avenue to not only interact with highly talented and motivated peers, but to relieve some of the pressure of grinding though undergraduate and then into medical school,” he says. He also fondly remembers a program at the medical school called Patient Perspectives, which allowed him to engage with patients before clinical years three and four (a touchstone of the medical school’s current curriculum).

Edward Kim, ’96 MD

Edward Kim, ’96 MD

Chicago itself was also a magnet, as Kim would frequently accompany his late father, a finance professor at Indiana State University, to the Windy City for professional conferences.

Kim began at Northwestern in 1989, earning an undergraduate degree in systems biology in 1992, followed by his medical degree in 1996. “Based on what happened to my brother, I thought I would become a pediatric cardiologist,” he says. “However, that did not appeal to me, so I spent the next several years in medical school trying to figure out what I was going to do. Still, oncology was never in my top 10 list, not even close. I thought, why would someone go into oncology? It is so sad and depressing.”

It was not until roughly halfway through his first year of residency in internal medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, during an oncology rotation, that Kim “flipped the switch.” He dealt with people on a very personal basis and to this day vividly recalls three patient encounters. “To me, oncology provided a refreshing perspective from cancer patients on how they viewed life,” Kim observes.

Kim with his wife Florence

Kim with his wife Florence

After completing his three-year residency at Baylor in 1999, Kim literally walked across the street to The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center to pursue his fellowship in medical oncology, which he completed in 2001. Kim was then immediately hired as an assistant professor in the Department of Thoracic/Head and Neck Medical Oncology at MD Anderson. Through the years, he was promoted to an associate professor with tenure and appointed chief of Head and Neck before transferring in 2012 to his current position as chair of Solid Tumor Oncology and Investigational Therapeutics at Levine Cancer Institute, Carolinas HealthCare System, in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Levine Cancer Institute’s formation in 2012 happened to coincide with not only Kim’s appointment as chief, but also the beginning of the Donald S. Kim Distinguished Chair for Cancer Research, which is held by Kim himself. “I requested the establishment of an endowed chair in memory of my brother,” he says.

When Kim entered the field of lung, head and neck cancers, the biggest challenge was the limited number of effective therapies. “There has been a complete transformation, especially for lung cancer, over the past 10 years,” he conveys. “When I started, all patients were given just chemotherapy. But now for lung cancer we test each tumor individually, look for tumor markers and match appropriate drugs to these markers, as opposed to a shotgun approach. In fact, some of these markers are actually pills that can be taken and are more effective than chemotherapy.”

Kim’s own research has helped instigate these changes. His resume includes publications in Lancet, Cancer Discovery, Lancet Oncology, Nature Reviews, Journal of Clinical Oncology, Journal of the National Cancer Institute and JAMA Oncology.

Kim is excited about matching the appropriate drug to an individual patient, predicated on the look of that patient’s tumor markers. Such precision medicine spans oral treatment, immunotherapy and chemotherapies. “There is so much focus in oncology about the drug; however, if the drug does not match the patients’ tumor, we are ignoring the most important aspect, which is the individual patient and what the genetics look like in their tumor,” he explains. “Everything needs to come from the patients. They are the greatest resource we have.”

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Kim with his children Elyssa and Alex

At Levine Cancer Institute, a 650-gene assay is ordered on patients to identify any potential tumor biomarkers. “This will inform the clinician to either treat the patient with a specific drug or direct the patient to a clinical trial,” Kim says.

For solid tumor oncology, Kim says it is important not only to investigate the patient’s tumor and associated genes, but also to assess the patient’s blood, urine and other parts of the body “to appropriately identify new markers and new therapies.” For instance, only one in five lung patients currently match for targeted treatment. “Hopefully, in the next 10 years, two in five patients or three in five patients will match,” Kim said.

When he’s not working, Kim stays active — he’s been playing tennis since seventh grade and was a varsity cheerleader at Northwestern from 1989 to 1990. In addition, “I am still a Cubs fan and a long-time Bears fan, as well as heavily support the Carolina Panthers here locally,” he says. Kim’s wife, Florence, is a psychiatrist, and the couple has two children: daughter Elyssa, 15, an aspiring golfer and stage performer, and son Alex, 11, who enjoys tennis and taekwondo.