“We have to be the next frontier”
Dr. Owonikoko is actually no stranger to Pittsburgh. He completed his hematology/oncology fellowship training at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in 2008 before accepting a position at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University in Atlanta. His two younger children were born here.
Now, he returns to advance cancer care by translating promising laboratory findings into clinical trials in collaboration with academic and industry partners.
As he explains, “Our goal is to move cancer care forward by bringing innovative trials to Pittsburgh and to UPMC Shadyside, where we do all of our trials and most of our research. There is no reason why a physician in, say, Alabama would send their patient to Pittsburgh just to get a treatment they can get there or Seattle or wherever. We have to be the next frontier for cancer care.”
One of the newest of these trials — and the first of its type in the world — “is what we call liquid radiation treatment,” Dr. Owonikoko says. “We have partnered with a European company to help develop this therapy, an infusion of radiation particles that can then bind to and kill cancer cells. The technology involves a new, safer way of designing the radiation carrier molecule so it doesn’t stay in the body for too long. This construct is the first time in the world that this will be done.”
Just as important to Dr. Owonikoko is a “low-tech, high-impact” trial using Lipitor, a commonly used medicine for cholesterol, to prevent or minimize hearing loss in some patients who receive some types of widely used chemotherapy, such as cisplatin.
“A recent, small study at the National Institutes of Health showed that Lipitor can actually reduce the risk of somebody developing hearing loss when they go on this chemotherapy,” Dr. Owonikoko says. “We hope to deploy such a trial across all our networks. If it works, if we actually show that this is something that can improve a patient’s quality of life, that will have worldwide impact.”
Dr. Owonikoko also hopes to involve more people of color with clinical cancer trials. “Among patients with lung cancer,” he says, “Black patients are below 4 percent of those in clinical trials. This underrepresentation perpetuates health care outcome inequality.”
“My family and I are happy to be back in Pittsburgh,” Dr. Owonikoko says. “It feels as if we are coming home to reconnect with old friends.”