Compassion Meets Research and Patient Care

Louis M. Weiner, MD, oncologist and researcher, has presence: his energy, his no-nonsense manner, his self-confidence fill the room. But there is also a palpable kindness in his eyes, and you later understand that this comes from his abiding compassion, his real concern for people who face a cancer diagnosis.

Becky speaks to a classmate via webcam

In a clinical setting, Weiner, director of the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, part of Georgetown University Medical Center and Georgetown University Hospital, seems utterly at home and happy tending to patients.

Toward the end of a recent packed afternoon at the cancer clinic, an elated Weiner prepares to meet with a colon cancer patient and her husband to convey CAT scan results following CyberKnife® treatment.

Nora Lopez’s tumor marker tests, which had risen ominously, now are greatly improved. They indicate that there is less cancer in her body. Her clinical condition, Weiner says, is good.

The Lopezes listen, their faces immobile, and slowly ask a couple of questions that Weiner answers. As if realizing their low-key reaction may stem from fear and disbelief, Weiner guides his stool closer and leans forward, a huge smile overtaking his face.

“In our business, when confronted with all this good news, we hardly know what to do. I can’t promise it’s a forever thing but it’s a lot more fun for me to give you good news than bad,” Weiner tells the Alexandria couple, as they visibly relax. “If I were you, I’d go out for a nice meal, have a nice toast, with nice champagne, and enjoy this.”

“For me it is an enormous satisfaction to see the glow in the face of the patient, in the faces of their family members,” he says after hugging both Lopezes, whom he doesn’t expect to see for months.

Responsible for the overall operations of the cancer center, including its educational and research missions, Weiner also leads the clinical operations of Georgetown University Hospital’s Medical Oncology group.

Weiner is the fourth director of Georgetown Lombardi, one of only 40 cancer centers with the prestigious National Cancer Institute (NCI) designation of Comprehensive Cancer Center. It was founded at Georgetown University in 1970 in honor of all-star football coach Vincent T. Lombardi by John F. Potter, MD, a member of Coach Lombardi’s oncology team.

Compassion Comes Full-Circle

Throughout the winter afternoon at the clinic, Weiner talks about a wide array of topics, mostly centered on the importance of scientific research and his ideas about how to battle cancer. But he also conveys the deeper meaning with which family, colleagues and helping others imbue his life. He tells excitedly, for example, about his and his wife Harriet’s first grandchild, a boy named Isaac.

And, inspired by the Lopezes happy faces, Weiner recounts an epiphany from a dozen years ago that inspires and shapes his dedication to patients. It involved a woman terribly sick with colon cancer that had spread to her liver, a bygone holiday season and another, nearly miraculous, piece of good news following a battery of tests.

“Huge cancer spots on her liver were nearly completely gone. I had never seen somebody’s metastatic colon cancer melt like that,” Weiner recalls. “It was one of the most satisfying moments of my professional life.”

Then Weiner shares another defining story. He relays how his own mother, just a girl of about 14, was disguised by nuns as a Catholic novitiate to hide her from the Nazis hunting for Jews during the Holocaust in wartime Belgium. One terrible day, after leaving the convent, she found herself sharing a stranger’s cellar with Nazi soldiers taking shelter during an air raid. She needed to hide her identity. Clutching a rosary, she calmly led the soldiers in the prayers the nuns had taught her, partly in hopes of converting her, but also to protect her.

These vignettes neatly form a full circle to explain Weiner’s decades-long journey from internationally recognized oncologist and cancer immunology researcher in his hometown of Philadelphia to chief of the only Catholic comprehensive cancer center in the nation.

In Washington, Weiner has found the place to honor the Belgian nuns who saved his mother by working at a Catholic institution. And in another nice dovetail, his son David is a student at Georgetown’s School of Medicine, class of 2014.

“It’s exciting to be here at Georgetown, which is an extraordinary venue,” Weiner says. “It’s as good as life gets here. We are really enjoying Washington.”

His wife Harriet is a botanical illustrator and retired public art teacher. She recently volunteered as a guest illustrator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History and currently volunteers at Georgetown Lombardi’s Arts and Humanities Program.

World-Class Biomedical Research

An internationally recognized oncologist specializing in the treatment of gastrointestinal cancers, Weiner is also a world-class biomedical researcher developing novel immunotherapy treatments in his laboratory.

His laboratory and clinical research have focused on new therapeutic approaches that galvanize a patient’s own immune system to fight cancer using monoclonal antibodies ─ laboratory—crafted proteins designed to recognize specific cancer cells. Monoclonal antibody therapy has emerged as a major treatment for many common cancers, including breast cancer, colon cancer, lymphoma, chronic lymphocytic leukemia and cancers of the head and neck.

Weiner has designed and produced antibody-based proteins with improved tumor-targeting and immune-stimulating properties that have shown tumor targeting is impaired if the antibodies attach too tightly to their targets.

He has also developed “bispecific” antibodies and related antibody-based proteins designed not only to recognize and bind to cancer cells but also to stimulate and organize immune-system cells to attack the targeted cells.

“We believe that effective antibody therapy can lead to a vaccine-like effect to help people’s immune systems reject their tumors when they try to grow,” Weiner says. “My work is designed to amplify and prolong this effect.”

Weiner and his colleagues are using the cutting-edge tools of functional genomics to discover the tumor genes that are responsible for resistance to tumor-targeting monoclonal antibodies. Weiner said he believes that combining antibodies with drugs that target the proteins specified by such genes may be the key to creating anti-cancer therapies that are more likely to be effective.

Weiner has his own biomedical research version of the “follow the money” dictum made famous by the Watergate scandal of the 1970s. “What can we do about it?” he says. “Let the questions dictate what needs to be done,” Weiner says. “Again, follow the trail wherever it leads.”

G DOC: Georgetown Lombardi’s Molecular Library

One such trail led Weiner to create G-DOC, short for Georgetown Database of Cancer, a first-of-its-kind online library of molecular information about cancer patients at Georgetown. “The job of introducing modern molecular information into clinical treatment has to start somewhere and we might as well start here,” Weiner says.

The database takes information from patients in clinical trials and matches it up with the unique molecular characteristics of their cancer types. This helps define the molecular features that underlie the patient’s prognosis and predict an individual’s responsiveness to therapy, as well as serve as a guide to which therapy might work best. Data on each patient then are integrated into a data repository for all patients with the same cancer, along with how patients fared with treatment.

The information could potentially also can be used for targeted drug discovery and development.

“Information is power but without knowledge it is useless. There is always going to be a role for wisdom in medical care but no matter how wise you are, an informational assist can be invaluable. In my mind, that’s what the G-DOC does,” Weiner says.

His ultimate goal for Georgetown Lombardi, working closely with GUMC’s clinical partner MedStar, is to expand the provision of “cost-effective, high-volume, virtuoso care.”

Weiner served as chairman of the Department of Medical Oncology at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia from 1994 until 2002, when he was appointed the first vice president for translational research. In that role, he developed Fox Chase’s translational research program, immunotherapy laboratory, clinical programs, and medical oncology fellowship program.

He received his BA in biology at the University of Pennsylvania and his MD at Mount Sinai School of Medicine of New York University. He completed his internship, residency, and chief medical residency at the University of Vermont’s Medical Center Hospital, and held clinical and research fellowships in hematology and oncology at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston.

Weiner has continued to practice clinically because his concern for individuals draws him to help patients one by one, he says. But it is his concern for humanity that has kept him toiling at the laboratory bench for nearly three decades: cures and treatments for cancer will benefit generations far into the future.

“We do it to make the world a better place one person at a time. We do it to make a difference,” Weiner says thoughtfully. “We don’t want to just treat people, we want to cure them.”

By Victoria Churchville, GUMC Communications

(Published May 2011)