Pulling Back the Curtain: Kenneth C. Anderson, MD

Kenneth C. Anderson, MD
Program director of the Jerome Lipper Multiple Myeloma Center and LeBow Institute for Myeloma Therapeutics at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Kraft Family Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School

In this edition, Kenneth C. Anderson, MD, shares why hematology is a labor of love for him, and why he’s a lifelong New England Patriots fan.

What was your first job?

My first job was as a golf caddy, where I affirmed my early interest in sports – and golf in particular. This is also where I learned the importance of discipline and commitment. By having this job at a young age, I also matured in interpersonal interactions and learned not to be discouraged by – but rather to learn from – mistakes and adversity.

Dr. Anderson with his wife and three children.
Dr. Anderson with his wife and three children.

Why did you decide to study medicine and to specialize in hematology and myeloma?

I grew up in a small town and was the first in my family to attend college. My mother was a nurse, and she inspired my interest in medicine. Initially, I was going to pursue a career as a general practitioner in a small town.

Studying biology and volunteering as an orderly while in college confirmed my interest  in medicine. I was introduced to academic medicine by Richard L. Humphrey, MD, from Johns Hopkins Medical School, a myeloma specialist who taught me two important lessons that have served as my motivation ever since: Make science count for patients by improving diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment; and treat patients like family. He remains my cherished role model, mentor, and friend.

Did you ever see yourself in a different career?

I really did not consider any other career path – I enjoyed science and am motivated and gratified by helping others. Medicine was a perfect fit for me.

I have been asked more than once why I work so much, but I feel lucky to do science and help develop treatments that impact patients and their families. For me it is a labor of love.

“I really did not consider any other career path … Medicine was a perfect fit for me.”

Tell us about your mentors.

Dr. Humphrey was a huge inspiration for me to pursue bench-to-bedside research in myeloma. The godfather of our field, Robert A. Kyle, MD, has also been a dear friend and role model, exemplifying how to carry out clinical research and train the next generation of researchers  and caregivers.

What advice would pass on to early-career hematologists?

My pursuit of bench-to-bedside research has taught me several important life lessons that I would share: First, do whatever you can to make a difference. Second, help to train the next generation of caregivers and researchers. And third, remember that health, friends, and family are all that truly matters.

I would advise early-career hematologists to focus on what makes them happy and gives them satisfaction. While there are many demands – whether choosing basic research, clinical research, or private practice – you will be truly fulfilled if you focus in areas that you genuinely enjoy.

Today, our field is at a time of  unprecedented opportunity.

People early in their hematology careers should know that they will witness rapidly evolving treatment paradigms for – and even the cure of – many hematologic malignancies and disorders.

How has hematology and medicine changed since you started your career?

When I started my career, myeloma was untreatable; now, there are many patients with myeloma who are living a normal life with a chronic illness, and curative therapy is a realistic possibility.

Clinical research has progressed from monoclonal antibodies to cytokines to cell signaling and now genomics and epigenomics. Taking advantage of these and other scientific advances to address fundamental questions in myeloma has translated to multiple effective therapies.

In the not-too-distant past, patients with myeloma were died quickly, often with pain and suffering; at present, many patients can enjoy celebrating life’s milestones with their families.

Myeloma isn’t the only hematologic malignancy where we are seeing such progress. The entire field of he- matology is experiencing this type of momentum.

What career accomplishment are you most proud of?

I am proud and grateful to have played a leadership role in improving the outcome of patients with myeloma.

When I began my career, there were few effective treatments for this disease, and few patients benefitted from them. I take pride that my laboratory and clinical group have contributed to advances in high-dose therapy and hematopoietic cell transplantation. Most importantly, we have developed laboratory and animal models of myeloma in the bone  marrow  microenvironment; this has enabled us to identify novel therapeutic targets, validate targeted and immune therapies, and translate these studies to clinical trials leading to their regulatory approval. As  a direct result, patients’ expected survival has been extended three- to four-fold.

I am also proud and most grateful to have helped train the next generation of myeloma leaders in basic, clinical, and translational research internationally. It really doesn’t get any better than that!

I have had the privilege of serving as ASH President this year. During my time as president, the Society launched multiple new initiatives, including implementing new patient registries, defining an educational roadmap, and prioritizing research and efforts in sickle cell disease, immune therapies, personalized medicine, and hematologist recruitment and retention.

We have initiated new donor events to increase funding for the ASH Foundation, and have expanded our international programs to improve awareness, clinical training, and patient access to drugs. These efforts highlight the important role ASH plays in improving outcomes for patients, caregivers, and researchers around the world.

“I am proud and grateful to have played a leadership role in improving the outcome of patients with myeloma.”

On a typical day, what is your rose, and what is your thorn?

The best part of my day is the time spent helping patients and working with my laboratory researchers. The worst is the ever-increasing administrative load (which is amplified by electronic medical records) and dealing with anything that can get in the way of taking good care of patients.

When you have off-hours, how do you like to spend them?

I enjoy sports, music, traveling, and spending time with my family on Cape Cod. My long walks on the beach are great therapy, no matter the weather or season.

What is one thing most people don’t know about you?

People might be surprised to learn that I have a close, cherished, and decades-long friendship with Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots.

Years ago, Robert and I helped to develop the Blood Component Laboratory at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. This has helped innumerable patients and children with cancer who need transfusions and directly facilitated development of novel cellular therapies.

Over several decades, Robert and I have worked on many projects to help those in need. Robert has also endowed my Kraft Family Professorship at Harvard Medical School and sponsors the Patriot Platelet Pedaler bicycle team, which raises funds for my research each year.

My ties to the Patriots run deep. I also cared for Ron Burton, a professional football player who was the first-ever Patriots draft pick (then called the “Boston Patriots”) in the 1960s. He developed myeloma later in life, and I was privileged to be his doctor. Ron founded a camp for underprivileged children after retiring from his football career, and there is now a Ron Burton Community Service Award given to a New England Patriot player each year.

My family and I are huge Patriot fans, and have attended seven Super Bowls! The Patriots have now won five Super Bowl titles, and Robert and I are truly a winning team in hematology research and care.