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Physician Resource

Researcher Highlight Q&A: Michael E. Williams, MD, Reducing Chemo Harm for Blood Cancer Patients

Michael E. Williams, MD, is a hematologist/oncologist and researcher at UVA Health. He also is the Byrd S. Leavell professor of medicine and professor of pathology at UVA School of Medicine.

Williams is currently on the scientific advisory board of the Lymphoma Research Foundation. He's also a member of both the European Mantle Cell Lymphoma Network and the Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group Lymphoma Core Committee. Formerly, he was chair of the Hematology Subspecialty Board of the American Board of Internal Medicine. He's won several awards for his research and dedication to patients.

Williams' research interests include translational science for mantle cell lymphoma, other non-Hodgkin lymphomas (NHLs), and chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), with a particular focus on immuno-therapeutics and other targeted treatments.

See Williams' selected publications. Below, Williams discusses his work and answers our Researcher Highlight questions:

What are you working on right now?

My career focus has been to advance the biological understanding and treatment of blood cancers, in particular NHL and CLL. This has included serving as a co-investigator and co-author of pivotal clinical trials leading to FDA approval of rituximab immunotherapy for NHL, as well as the targeted oral agents lenalidomide and ibrutinib for mantle cell lymphoma.

Our lymphoma and CLL research team continues to evaluate novel targeted combinations that spare the use of chemotherapy via multiple ongoing clinical trials. We recently initiated a translational multicenter Synergistic Team Science grant from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, with collaborators at the University of Pennsylvania and the MD Anderson Cancer Center. This project was initiated and is led by a member of our lymphoma research team, Jianguo Tao, MD, who is in the UVA Comprehensive Cancer Center and the department of pathology. We seek to enhance response and cure rates following CAR T-cell immunotherapy for mantle cell lymphoma.

What are the most intriguing potential clinical applications of your work?

Over the years, we’ve demonstrated improved patient outcomes and survival with immunotherapy and oral agents that target tumor cells directly. We're building upon this work to reduce or eliminate traditional chemotherapy regimens and their associated toxicities.

What recent discovery/paper/presentation has impacted the way you think?

The European Mantle Cell Lymphoma Network, with whom I’ve collaborated for many years, recently showed that intensive chemotherapy and autologous stem cell transplantation can be replaced via the addition of ibrutinib to initial treatment and as maintenance therapy (the TRIANGLE study). This is but one of many powerful examples of de-escalating chemotherapy and toxicity while improving outcomes and quality of life for lymphoma and CLL patients.

What made you choose UVA Health as the place to do your research?

I completed my residency in medicine and my hematology/oncology fellowship here, and have been honored to be on the faculty throughout my career. UVA Health offers outstanding patient care, and each member of the Cancer Center is committed to delivering the most promising and state-of-the-art therapies.

The collaborative culture across UVA Health’s basic and translational scientists and the clinician investigators, who develop and lead clinical trials for each of our disease teams, contributes importantly to advancing the field at UVA Health and beyond.

What do you wish more people knew about your area of research?

A diagnosis of leukemia or lymphoma is terrifying for patients and families. But, they can be reassured by the dramatic research advances and highly effective treatment options that are now available. To benefit from this progress, it’s important to leverage the advances in molecular diagnostics, disease-specific pathology expertise, specialized imaging, and multidisciplinary clinical team management to optimize treatment for their specific cancer type.

Much remains to be done, and all of us remain highly motivated and energized to accelerate continued progress.

How did you become interested in your area of research?

Early in my career, I became fascinated by the molecular pathogenesis of lymphoma – mutations and chromosomal translocations – that give rise to specific subtypes of these blood cancers (there are over 80 individual types of lymphoma!). By analyzing patient biopsies and blood samples in my laboratory, we characterized the molecular underpinnings that inform diagnosis and prognosis and, as treatment options evolved, individualized therapy for each patient.

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