Hope is one of the most important words cancer patients can hear, and through his team’s work and clinical trials, Craig Portell, MD, is often able to offer patients just that. Portell is a hematologist and oncologist at UVA Cancer Center with a specific interest in blood cancers—mainly, chronic leukemias and lymphomas. Portell currently has 10 active clinical trials underway at UVA and five more in the pipeline. All prioritize advancing the standard of care through the incorporation of non-chemotherapy or other novel treatments. For patients, this often means a new way forward after a cancer diagnosis.
Q: What attracted you to UVA?
When I was looking to make my next career move, Virginia was not at the top of my radar. But an opportunity presented itself to work with Michael Williams, a great mentor of mine and the chief of the hematology/oncology division at UVA. When my wife and I visited, it was a beautiful Charlottesville day and we loved the city and the surrounding area.
Q: Why hematology/oncology, and more specifically—why blood cancers?
I began medical school with my sights actually set on forensic pathology. I quickly realized that field meant a whole lot of paperwork, and when I got into the clinical space, I realized how much I enjoyed interacting with patients. At the same time, I stayed very interested in pathology. Pathology explores cell biology and histology, which directly influences the different therapies we can use to fight blood cancers. A small piece of tissue dictates the entire direction of treatment and our understanding of the cancer moving forward. Becoming a hematologist-oncologist was the perfect blend for me—the patient is my focus and pathology often becomes the key to their care.
Q: What are you most excited about in your current work?
Because Dr. Williams was so instrumental in the early discovery of mantle cell lymphoma (MCL) as a specific type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma that is typically very aggressive, I have several clinical trials focused on MCL. The novel agents we’re using to combat MCL at UVA are some of the most exciting in our field and offer a non-chemotherapy alternative for patients. In the future, using the body’s own immune system to fight cancer will become the new paradigm for cancer care.
Q: How does private philanthropy impact your current work and goals?
Many of the clinical trials we offer are homegrown, created and developed right here at UVA. Before they are made available to patients, a proposal has to be written and submitted. There’s nothing like going for a clinical study proposal and having solid basic science and translational research to support your story. For example—our MCL clinical trials would not have been developed to the point they are today without a significant amount of translational science, which developed out of collaborations with Michael Weber’s lab. Much of that fundamental work was and is supported by philanthropic donations. Philanthropic support truly does make new therapies possible and available to patients who need them the most.
Q: One thing most people don’t know about you?
My sock collection is quite impressive! I don’t have a favorite pair—just whichever feels right for the day ahead.
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