The Eugene P. Schonfeld Award recognizes highly respected health care professionals who have made significant contributions in the treatment of renal cell carcinoma.
Rathmell, the Cornelius Abernathy Craig Professor of Medicine and director of the Division of Hematology and Oncology, is the first woman to receive the honor.
“When I first started, there really were very few kidney cancer clinical investigators,” said Vanderbilt’s Rathmell, who currently serves as the president of The American Society for Clinical Investigation and chairs the Kidney Cancer Research Program for the Department of Defense Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs.
“Because I was so interested in the biology of kidney cancer and intent on being a physician scientist, I thought kidney cancer was a good place to start. It melded well with what I wanted to study. It was a disease that was completely orphaned. There were essentially no effective therapies for the great majority of patients.”
The only drug available for kidney cancer when Rathmell received her medical degree from Stanford University in 1998 was interleukin-2, which was effective in only a small subset of patients. Now, targeted therapies and immunotherapies are the mainstream.
“I have sort of ridden the wave of new discoveries and new innovations, new therapies,” Rathmell said. “In my career, we have gone from almost every patient having to have a hospice discussion on their first encounter to now being able to tell some of my patients I’m reasonably sure we have them cured. That happened in gradual steps.”
Rathmell’s career has paralleled the trajectory of advancements in kidney cancer research and treatment, some of which she helped bring about through her advocacy and her own studies. She was an investigator with the Cancer Genome Atlas, a landmark genomics program that molecularly characterized cancers, including specificity about the diversity of kidney cancers.
She is also a clinician who ushered in new life-saving treatments and a leader who has advocated for funding for kidney cancer research, including rare forms.
In 2016, she championed the needs of patients with a rare form of kidney cancer called renal medullary carcinoma (RMC) that afflicts children, adolescents and young adults, particularly African Americans. She convened a panel of leading experts to meet in Nashville that year and invited families affected by the disease. The meeting led to the creation of RMC Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy organization.
Toni K. Choueiri, MD, with the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, will present Rathmell with the award Nov. 15 during the International Kidney Cancer Symposium in Miami, Florida, where Rathmell will deliver the Eugene P. Schonfeld Memorial Lecture.
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