James P. Thomas, MD ’91, PhD ’89, GME ’95
Physician-scientist-entrepreneur and Union Grove native James P. Thomas, MD ’91, PhD ’89, GME ’95, has returned to Wisconsin with an unwavering commitment to earning The Medical College of Wisconsin a designation as a National Cancer Institute (NCI) Comprehensive Cancer Center.
“This is a very new, reinvigorated effort with a lot of resources of the medical campus being brought to bear,” Dr. Thomas said. “We have a very aggressive agenda for developing some key areas within the Cancer Center, both in basic science departments and clinical departments.”
Lured back by Medical College of Wisconsin Cancer Center Director Ming You, MD, PhD, and what Dr. Thomas describes as world-class research being performed by strong, young faculty, Dr. Thomas is now Professor of Medicine (Hematology/Oncology). His clinical research acumen will be instrumental in steering new cancer treatments from College labs through the trial process and into clinics.
“Dr. Thomas will lead the effort to develop MCW Cancer Center’s Clinical Trials Office, which provides much needed support to all investigators in the Cancer Center for clinical research activities,” said Dr. You, the Joseph F. Heil, Jr. Professor in Molecular Oncogenesis, Senior Associate Dean for Cancer Research, Education and Clinical Care, and Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology.
Dr. Thomas’ own research is on the pursuit of antioxidants to protect against reactive oxygen species (ROS) cell damage that leads to cancer and other diseases. His work has led to two patents and two NCI Small Business Innovation Research awards presented to the company he founded in 2006, Perscitus Biosciences.
Perscitus is developing and commercializing Dr. Thomas’ two patented technologies that represent breakthroughs in the applied use of these ROS-based chemical reactions. One is a compound that is a precursor to glutathione and selectively protects normal cells from the toxic effects of chemotherapy and radiation therapy. The second patented technology is for a testing kit that determines the function of unknown proteins by identifying protein-binding partners. The redox-based protein assay will be used in drug development.
Armed with a PhD in biochemistry, an MD, internal medicine training, and experience as a research fellow in biophysics and as a medical oncologist, Dr. Thomas left the state in 2005. He took a position as Medical Director of the Clinical Trials Office of the Ohio State Comprehensive Cancer Center.
When he arrived at Ohio State, it was undergoing a rapid growth phase similar to what the Medical College is now experiencing. His history as a cancer researcher and translational researcher, understanding the correlative science of clinical trials, enabled him to help others develop their concepts.
“We communicated to investigators and staff the importance of participation in clinical trials,” Dr. Thomas said, “and we improved the infrastructure such that we could offer more trials and the trials would open quicker.”
The result: the number of patients enrolled in trials nearly doubled.
Dr. Thomas is also Chairman of the American Association of Cancer Institutes Clinical Research Initiative. The initiative is a network of cancer center leaders that advocate for rapid development and implementation of clinical trials by sharing information on proven models that lead to new cancer therapies.
“This group has really given me a lot of insight into the way that clinical cancer research is done across the country,” Dr. Thomas said. “It also gives MCW a place at the table nationally to talk about what’s being done here.”
In his clinical practice, Dr. Thomas treats patients with gastrointestinal cancers.
“When I was doing my training, [gastrointestinal] represented one of a number of cancers that had the most room for improvement,” he said. “They needed new ideas and new treatments, and I thought that during my lifetime we could make contributions in this area.”
James P. Thomas, MD ’91, PhD ’89, GME ’95, believes participation in clinical trials should be the norm, rather than the exception, and his return to The Medical College of Wisconsin precipitates a movement toward that goal in cancer care. In general, he says, people who participate in clinical trials have better outcomes, that the best treatment is available in the context of clinical trials.
“Progress isn’t being hampered by the lack of ideas; there are ideas out there,” Dr. Thomas said. “They just need to be tested to find out which ones work and which ones don’t. In order to test them, we need to get people into clinical trials.”
The American Association of Cancer Institutes (AACI) is a substantial resource for physicians, researchers and leaders working to advance clinical trials. Dr. Thomas serves as Chairman of the AACI Clinical Research Initiative, which was established to fill a need for peers conducting clinical research in cancer centers to share best practices and uniformly approach other key stakeholders to try to eliminate some of the barriers to clinical cancer research.
According to the AACI, common roadblocks to cancer treatment include:
- Growing complexity of trials
- Administrative barriers
- Regulatory constraints
- Expanding staffing requirements
- Increasing costs
- Lagging patient accrual
“The single most important obstacle to overcome is getting physicians to talk to their patients about clinical trial opportunities, to be able to spend the time to discuss it with them, to address any concerns they might have and then to be able to offer it up as a potential option,” Dr. Thomas said.
The limiting factors to physicians offering clinical trials tend to be excess workload, difficulty getting the trials open and having enough trials for different situations, he said. Doctors are also not necessarily rewarded for the effort.
Patients too can have concerns about entering a clinical trial. They wonder what toxicities they might be exposed to, whether they will receive a placebo, how much time it will take and whether it is even potentially helpful to them.
“Cancer offers some unique research challenges because the patients are often quite ill,” Dr. Thomas said. “At the time the patient finds out about their diagnosis, there is a lot of anxiety and insecurity, so trying to address those concerns and come up with a clinical trial that might be available for the patient in a relatively quick manner can sometimes be challenging. The patients are often very sick and need to get their treatment relatively quickly.”
Still, the value in offering clinical trials is high. Utilization, however, is not. It is estimated that more than 500,000 people have cancer in the United States, but 97 percent do not take part in clinical trials. This is what Dr. Thomas hopes to change.
“Tomorrow’s standard treatment is today’s clinical trial,” he said.
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