Get to Know ... Barbara Pro, MD

By Kerri Fitzgerald - Last Updated: September 13, 2022

Barbara Pro, MD, Director of the Lymphoma Program at the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, discusses the exciting advancements made in lymphoma and what still needs to be done to improve patient outcomes.

When did you develop an interest in medicine? My dad died at the age of 42 from metastatic colon cancer. I was in high school, and it was devastating for me and my family. I told myself I needed to study very hard and become an oncologist to help find better treatments. I also wanted my research to be impactful, so no other family had to go through the pain of losing a loved one.

How did you choose to study lymphoma as your specialty? At the beginning of my career, I wanted to do gastro­intestinal oncology. I had the privilege of being accepted at MD Anderson Cancer Center for the hematology/oncology fellowship program, and during the first few months of my training, I did a rotation in malignant hematology. I was impressed by the variety of diseases, the many treatments available, and the ability to cure patients. Moreover, I met outstanding researchers and inspiring leaders and mentors like Drs. Hagop Kantarjian, Susan O’Brien, Michael Keating, and Fernando Cabanillas—to mention a few who really inspired me. They were so passionate about the field, which was evolving so rapidly with many novel treatments. I decided to pursue a career in malignant hematology and lymphoma in particular because I liked the diversity of the patients and the opportunity to have a lifelong relationship with them.

You mentioned some of your mentors. How did they shape the course of your career? I had the fortune of training and working with outstanding physicians and researchers. Working with them in the clinic and seeing them care so deeply about patients and their commitment to education and research provided me inspiration to dedicate my career to lymphoma research and treatment. I consider myself very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with two outstanding lymphoma specialists—Drs. Cabanillas and Alma Rodriguez. I also had the opportunity to work with Dr. Anas Younes, and under his guidance, I gained the necessary experience and skills to develop innovative clinical trials. All these interactions with my incredible mentors and colleagues made me the person I am today.

Now that you are in a position to mentor others, how do you encourage mentees and help transfer your skills and knowledge? Patient care is my priority. What we do every day and why we do it is because we want to improve their lives. We want to make sure we offer the best treatment; sometimes this requires cutting-edge clinical trials to investigate more effective therapies. I believe we should offer equal opportunities to every patient who comes to our door. I cannot stress enough that we have to offer the same treatment and quality of care to every patient.

Being an oncologist is very rewarding, but at times it can be hard because not every story is a success story. However, we want tomorrow to be better than yesterday. I’m lucky that we can offer treatments we didn’t have even a few years ago, let alone a decade or two decades ago. It’s a great time to be in the field of oncology because many new treatments have completely changed the landscape and revolutionized the way we treat these diseases.

You have contributed greatly to the research on targeted therapies for aggressive lymphoma. How are targeted therapies changing the standard of practice and outcomes for patients? When I was training in Italy, chemotherapy was the only option for cancer patients. Most patients with relapsed disease did not survive. We are moving away from standard chemotherapy or a “one size fits all” approach to very individualized and personalized treatments.

A lot of progress has been made with the understanding that lymphomas are very heterogeneous. They have unique features and sometimes very specific molecular abnormalities, so having targeted therapies has been a real game changer. It has been incredible to witness the progress in the care and treatment of our patients.

What work still needs to be done to improve patient outcomes? We still have a lot of work to do in trying to understand why patients develop lymphoma and what the causes are. There are some types of lymphoma that are extremely rare and aggressive like T-cell lymphomas where we have to continue investigating more effective treatments.

Where do you see the field heading, and what are some exciting happenings in lymphoma? The development of chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapy has completely changed the treatment landscape in patients with large B-cell lymphoma who have relapsed disease. Now we also know that this treatment is effective for patients with refractory disease—patients who, in the past, didn’t have many options—which is very important.

Also, the development of naked antibodies, antibody drug conjugates, and now bispecific antibodies has been a breakthrough in the treatment of hematologic malignancies and more specifically lymphoma. These are the major advances, and hopefully we can develop more of these targeted therapies.

There is well known toxicity associated with these treatments; however, we have gained significant experience with their use, and we are now able to prevent and manage the side effects much better.

What are your interests outside of work? I love to travel. I went to Italy recently to visit my family. I enjoy going there; it’s very special to me. It’s nice to be able to travel even for work and to meet many of our colleagues in every part of the world. And since I’m Italian, I love to cook—pasta obviously.

What is one thing most people would be surprised to learn about you? I’m a cat lover. I currently have two cats, but I would have more if I could. Every time I travel, my kids always make fun of me because, somehow, we always find cats. Everywhere I go, there are cats. They follow me, or maybe I follow them.

Barbara Pro, MD, is also Professor of Medicine in the Department of Medicine, Division of Hematology/Oncology at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

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