Cancer Crusader

by Nora Dunne | photograph by Andre LaCour

Leon Platanias steers the Lurie Cancer Center
toward better patient outcomes.





Leonidas Platanias, MD, PhD, was a medical student in Patras, Greece, when his father was diagnosed with leukemia in the early 1980s. It made the task of choosing a specialty easy for the aspiring physician.

“I decided to follow a career treating cancer,” Platanias says. “I felt that this was the most important field in medicine, and I still do. I think that everybody without exception has been affected by cancer, and it’s by far the biggest health problem we have right now.”

Today, Platanias is director of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University, a role that puts him at the helm of clinical operations that serve more than 15,000 new cancer patients each year and a research enterprise that includes more than 100 ongoing clinical trials. In addition to this leadership position, he runs an active laboratory that investigates immune regulation in leukemias and other cancers, and he spends half a day each week in the clinic seeing patients with cancer. He is also an attending physician in the inpatient leukemia service at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, treating patients with acute myeloid leukemia.

“I do many different jobs, but it’s important to understand all these different aspects of cancer and to be able to connect them,” he says. “That’s how the Lurie Cancer Center can have the most impact on our patients.”

Priority on the Patient

After earning his medical degree and PhD from the University of Patras Medical School in 1983, Platanias moved to the United States for a research fellowship at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. He went on to complete a residency in internal medicine at the State University of New York, Downstate Medical Center, and a fellowship in hematology-oncology at the University of Chicago Hospitals. He eventually became chief of Hematology and Oncology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In 2002, he was recruited to Northwestern to be the first deputy director of the Lurie Cancer Center; in 2014, he was named its director.

In his sixteen years at Northwestern, Platanias has come to measure success in two ways: “There are academic accomplishments, and there are accomplishments that improve the lives of our patients. Academically, we have done really well, grown exponentially in research dollars from the National Cancer Institute. But to me, research is only important if it can affect the patient. Otherwise it has no meaning,” he explains.

He points to examples that demonstrate how investigators in the Lurie Cancer Center have been able to translate research into new therapies for patients: Deputy Director Maha Hussain, MD, published research this summer in the New England Journal of Medicine showing that an existing drug called enzalutamide can lower the risk of metastasis or death in men with non-metastatic castrate-resistant prostate cancer and a rising PSA level. And Lurie Cancer Center members are currently leading two clinical trials testing brand new approaches to treat glioblastoma brain tumors.

I think that everybody without exception has been affected by cancer, and it’s by far the biggest health problem we have right now.

To me, research is only important if it can affect the patient. Otherwise it has no meaning

In his own laboratory, Platanias focuses on signaling pathways in cancer cells and developing therapies that target those pathways. His team has showed how proteins critical to the human immune response called interferons fight cancer cells — for this work, he was awarded the prestigious Milstein Award. He has also identified negative feedback loops in leukemia cells that allow them to survive chemotherapy and other treatments. His group aims to develop novel ways to treat cancer by targeting these feedback loops, some involving targeting of arsenic pathways. In another recent study, his team demonstrated how nanoparticles could be used to target the cholesterol signaling that allows a subtype of medulloblastoma brain tumors to grow.

“We want to be able to offer our patients treatments that will cure them today — treatments that may not become standard care at other places for another decade,” Platanias says.

Epic Battle

Despite the achievements the Lurie Cancer Center has made during Platanias’ tenure to date, he knows its members face formidable challenges to achieve their mission of decreasing morbidity and mortality caused by the disease.

“Every day we save lives, and that’s a huge accomplishment. But the problem is so big and so devastating,” he says, pointing to National Cancer Institute analysis that predicts cancer will strike one in two men and one in three women.

He mentions a line in a book he read recently, “The Death of Cancer” by Vincent T. DeVita, a pioneer in chemotherapy treatments: “… as anyone who has ever been diagnosed (or loved someone who has) knows, the impact of cancer on one’s body, one’s life, and one’s family is nothing short of epic.”

“Fighting cancer is an epic battle for our patients,” Platanias emphasizes. “And that is the way we as a cancer center need to view it as well.”

Recognizing cancer’s prevalence in the population and its profound effect on individuals, Platanias and the Lurie Cancer Center take many approaches to reach patients on both macro and micro levels. For instance, the center founded the Chicago Cancer Initiative, a collaboration with community organizations to eliminate cancer disparities among low income and medically underserved areas of the city. Meanwhile, Platanias spends a lot of time helping patients navigate the complicated healthcare system, from finding them the right doctor to connecting them to clinical trials.

“We need to remember that clinical research is not just research — it is the best clinical care for a cancer patient,” says Platanias, who is also the Jesse, Sara, Andrew, Abigail, Benjamin and Elizabeth Lurie Professor of Oncology in the Departments of Medicine and Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics.

He believes that the center’s top priority needs to be providing the resources and programs that enable basic scientists and clinicians to turn findings in the lab into better outcomes for patients.

“Cancer is not like other diseases, where you give one pill and the disease goes away. Just a fraction of patients are cured,” he says. “Even in curable cancers, there are groups of patients that do not get cured. So there is always room to improve the outcomes, and that’s why it is so important to get away from the old notion that separates clinical care from research. This artificial separation does not apply to the treatment of cancer.”

Platanias’ father passed away in the late 1980s, only a few years after his leukemia diagnosis. He would have lived longer today with the treatments and tools now available thanks to research like the work conducted by Platanias and his team at the Lurie Cancer Center.


Q&A With Leon Platanias: Avenue of Cancer Research to Watch

Q: What promising area of cancer research do you have your eye on right now?

A: I think one of the most exciting areas is immunotherapy — stimulating the immune response to fight cancer. If you look at the history of this field, it goes in spikes. It started in the late 1800s by a random observation from a surgeon in New York named William Coley, who realized that cancer was subsiding among a small group of patients who developed a very bad infection. The field gradually evolved and in the 1980s Steven Rosenberg began using immune cells to treat melanoma. Then for a while, immunotherapy was dormant.

Now we understand a little bit more about the mechanisms of the immune system. We have checkpoint inhibitors and CAR T-cells and this kind of treatment is becoming a reality. But we need more basic science work to better understand the system so we could use it more effectively. We need to come up with new breakthroughs, and for this to happen we need more research. We have many investigators at the Lurie Cancer Center involved in this effort.