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Gbolahan receives Fisher Young Investigator Award

Hoosier Cancer Research Network, formerly known as Hoosier Oncology Group, recently honored Olumide Gbolahan, MD, as the 2016 recipient of the George and Sarah Jane Fisher Young Investigator Award.

Dr. Gbolahan grew up in Nigeria where his interest in medicine took root in high school. “My aptitude was really more toward the health sciences, biology core sciences,” he said. “I found myself moving in the direction of medicine. Once I found myself in medicine, I did not see that I could do anything else.”

After high school, Dr. Gbolahan completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Ibadan and earned a master’s in cancer immunology and biotechnology at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom. He worked at the National Health Service in the U.K., then completed his residency at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta. He came to Indiana University in 2015 for a fellowship in hematology/oncology.

During his training in Nigeria, Dr. Gbolahan encountered cancer in a life-changing way. “A patient I was involved in caring for during the second month of my internship in Nigeria had hepatocellular carcinoma,” he recalls. “It was very surprising because she had the hepatic mass for at least two years and she did not seem to have any major problems. She was only coming into the hospital because she was beginning to have more pain. At the time, we were not very familiar with a variant of hepatocellular carcinoma that is not as aggressive as classic hepatocellular carcinoma. That is probably what she had. What was interesting at the time was she was 23 years old, and she had no risk factors that would make you think that she had hepatocellular carcinoma.”

What surprised Dr. Gbolahan even more than the cancer was the patient herself. “She knew very much about her disease. She knew much more than me, who had spent six years in medical school,” he said. “She was also very focused on getting a drug, somatostatin, which she had read was being used in the USA for the management of hepatocellular carcinoma. Every time I saw her in the morning, she would talk about this medication. She would talk about how we could get the medications for her.”

This experience sparked Dr. Gbolahan to learn what newer agents existed to treat a disease that was not curable in many parts of the world. It also exposed him to the contagious hope of a cancer patient. “The way she carried this diagnosis, the way she looked at the future despite that it was not a very good prognosis; she was still reading and she still had so much hope,” he said. “Her story pushed me along the path of learning more about oncology, learning more about newer therapy options for the management of something like hepatocellular carcinoma.”

At Indiana University, Dr. Gbolahan benefits from key mentorships. “My clinical mentor is Dr. Bert O’Neil. He has been very helpful in providing me with opportunities to write, and to explore ideas that I have in terms of questions for research – clinical questions,” he said. “Then in the laboratory I’m working with Dr. Murray Korc, who has immense experience and research in pancreatic cancer. Dr. Jalal, who was a previous recipient of this award has really been helpful with providing advice and providing a lot of positive energy; the same is true for Dr. Nasser Hanna.”

The path that led him to the clinic also continually leads Dr. Gbolahan to the lab. “One of the things that fascinates me about oncology is the breadth of the questions; I derive the most joy when I am thinking about and trying to answer these questions,” he said. “I would like a career where I can do some clinical work but also do laboratory investigations into some of the questions that I may have or that the community has in terms of managing all cancers, particularly gastrointestinal cancers.”

Dr. Gbolahan’s main interests are in gastrointestinal malignancies, hepatobiliary malignancies, and pancreatic cancer. “I am very interested in pancreatic cancer because we just have so much more to offer,” Dr. Gbolahan said. “I feel like there is a great need in this area and I want to be one of those helping in this area.”

Working in Dr. Korc’s lab, Dr. Gbolahan is investigating targeted agents in the management of pancreatic cancer. “He has some very interesting animal models of the disease,” Dr. Gbolahan said. “We are beginning to see some evidence that we may be able to manipulate the immune system, even in pancreatic cancer, which is considered to be resistant to the immune response to other cancers. I want to be able to combine standard treatment agents with something like immunotherapy. That is what I am interested in.”

Hoosier Cancer Research Network recently honored Dr. Gbolahan as recipient of the 2016 George and Sarah Jane Fisher Young Investigator Award. This award will help further his research on the modulation of the immune system in the treatment of pancreatic cancer.

The $15,000 award, endowed in 2011 by William B. Fisher, MD, and others through the George and Sarah Jane Fisher Fund, is given annually to an Indiana University oncology fellow or faculty member who has made significant contributions to clinical or basic science research in collaboration with the Hoosier Cancer Research Network. Dr. Fisher established the George and Sarah Jane Fisher Fund in the mid 1990s in memory of his mother, Sarah Jane, and brother, George, both of whom died of cancer within the span of three years. Dr. Fisher is a co-founder of Hoosier Cancer Research Network and served as the organization’s vice chair until 2000.

“I am grateful that I have been given the opportunity to do this research,” Dr. Gbolahan said. “I am looking to investigate the immune modulating effect of FOLFIRINOX in patients who have pancreatic cancer. I will be looking in patient samples, and I am also going to be looking in the labs with pancreatic cancer cell lines.”

Dr. Gbolahan sees the potential to answer some important, treatment-changing questions. “Compared to the standard treatment, FOLFIRINOX added about four to five months of survival benefit in patients with metastatic pancreatic cancer.  In the last few years, there has been a thought that this same agent, because it is so active in metastatic pancreatic cancer, will probably be helpful for people who have resectable disease. The thinking here is that, even in people with very local, resectable disease, by the time the disease is manifesting they already have tiny micro-metastases all over the body. Therefore, if we can treat them up-front, get rid of the micro-metastases, and maybe shrink the tumor to the extent that we can totally remove it, that increases our chances for a cure.

“I am interested in looking at is whether this FOLFIRINOX chemotherapy in any way modulates the immune system,” Dr. Gbolahan continued. “If we give patients FOLFIRINOX, are we going to see a change in the cancer cells that would render them more open to immune-mediated killing? Are we going to see a change in the microenvironment such that the previously suppressive microenvironment in the pancreas is activated, so that those cells that were suppressed in the past become activated and can kill the tumor?”

Along with these ideas, Dr. Gbolahan brings his own hope and perspective. “I think that over the next few years, we may be able to answer questions of how to combine things and how to sequence things. Combination treatment and sequencing of traditional agents with the newer agents I think are the big things that will be coming up in the next five to ten years in cancer management in general,” he said.

Together, researchers like Dr. Gbolahan, with the drive to answer oncology’s urgent questions, are leading us ever closer to needed treatments and hoped-for cures. Awards like the George and Sarah Jane Fisher Young Investigator Award empower them in their efforts.

“I am grateful for the opportunity to be at Indiana University to work with all the great minds and to be given the opportunity to be a recipient of this award,” Dr. Gbolahan said.

About Hoosier Cancer Research Network:

Hoosier Cancer Research Network (formerly known as Hoosier Oncology Group) conducts innovative cancer research in partnership with academic and community physicians and scientists across the United States and internationally. The organization provides comprehensive clinical trial management and support, from conception through publication. Created in 1984 as a program of the Walther Cancer Institute, Hoosier Cancer Research Network became an independent nonprofit clinical research organization in 2007. Since its founding, Hoosier Cancer Research Network has initiated more than 160 trials in a variety of cancer types and supportive care, resulting in more than 300 publications. More than 5,000 subjects have participated in Hoosier Cancer Research Network clinical trials.