Cancer as a Calling

Nov 07, 2018

A Conversation With Physician-Scientist and Pediatric Cancer Survivor Dr. Eugene Shenderov

By Carson Rolleri, ASCO Communications

Eugene Shenderov, MD, DPhil, is a recipient of ASCO’s Conquer Cancer Foundation Young Investigator Award (YIA). He is an oncology fellow at Johns Hopkins Hospital, a Rhodes Scholar, and a refugee, having traveled to the United States with his family at age 5 for his own medical treatment.

Born in the southwestern part of the Ukraine in 1983, Dr. Shenderov developed pediatric acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) after the nuclear explosion at Chernobyl in April 1986.

“The unfortunate incident led to radioactive fallout, really over a lot of Europe, including our area,” recalled Dr. Shenderov. “Afterwards, there was a higher than expected incidence of malignancy and additional illnesses, especially in the pediatric populations, including myself. And unfortunately, because of the time, the financial resources in the former USSR really weren’t there for the treatment of cancer.”

Looking for viable treatments for their son and to freely practice their Jewish faith, the Shenderov family left the former USSR in 1989, seeking asylum in the West with other Jewish families. Dr. Shenderov was first treated in Italy, then moved to the United States to receive treatment at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC), where he received treatment from age 6 to 10.

“The nursing staff and physicians at MSKCC really got my family, and definitely me, through the whole experience,” he said. “To this day I can remember those hospital rooms, and it was through the staff’s compassionate care, as well as the clinical advances of the medicine at the time, that I can credit to my health, my drive to become a physician, and my desire to give back to people living with cancer.”

Specifically, Dr. Shenderov was interested in what was happening in oncology during the time of his treatment, and how those breakthroughs had helped increase survival rates of pediatric ALL, his own cancer.

“The clinical advances for my own treatment were made by people I never met,” said Dr. Shenderov. “That inspired me to think about not only taking care of the person who was in front of me, but to take that knowledge to help people I would never see personally. That number isn’t limited to how many people will walk through my clinic doors. And that’s why I sought the training to be a physician-scientist, providing clinical care in person and hopefully providing discoveries at the bench.”

The Power of Mentorship

Throughout his career, Dr. Shenderov has remained incredibly humble, acknowledging the key to his success: the power of mentorship. His first professional mentor was Alan Houghton, MD, an ASCO member whom Dr. Shenderov met in his sophomore year in high school, after asking to volunteer in Dr. Houghton’s tumor immunology lab.

“Dr. Houghton really believes in the importance of training the next generation of budding scientists,” said Dr. Shenderov. “People use the word often, but really he was a fantastic mentor, and to this day, is one of the reasons I am where I am. He left an indelible mark on my passion to become a physician-scientist.”

Dr. Shenderov was fortunate to have multiple dedicated mentors throughout his career, both inside and outside of the lab, including ASCO Board of Directors member Jedd Wolchok, MD, PhD, and Drew M. Pardoll, MD, PhD, as well as Ross Donehower, MD, Emmanuel Antonarakis, MD, Chuck Drake, MD, PhD, Jonathan Yewdell, MD, PhD, and Vincenzo Cerundolo, MD, PhD. He also stressed the important role his very first mentors had on his career: his parents.

“Not only did my parents have to deal with my illness, on top of being refugees to a new country, but they also taught my sister, my brother, and me the benefits of intellectual curiosity,” said Dr. Shenderov. “They were great models of why to ask ‘why,’ which I think is the basis of being a scientist and a physician.” 

After high school, Dr. Shenderov went to Brooklyn College and was named a Rhodes Scholar in 2005. In 2007, his younger brother, Kevin, was also named a Rhodes Scholar—one of only a few pairs of siblings to ever receive the distinction. They both pursued doctorates in immunology through a joint program between Oxford and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“Having a brother who I am very proud of, it was very humbling to see him become a Rhodes Scholar as well,” said Dr. Shenderov. “But we didn’t come out of a vacuum. It speaks to the fact that we had the same parents, the same mentoring relationship with Dr. Houghton. We had these fantastic guides and mentors throughout our upbringing.”

The Impact of the YIA

After completing his studies at Oxford, Dr. Shenderov began his medical training at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and is now an oncology fellow at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Looking to secure support for his research project, Dr. Shenderov said he knew of the Conquer Cancer YIA as a longstanding award in the field, one that gave oncology fellows their first chance for external grant funding of their own research ideas, signaling an important step in an oncologist’s career.

The 1-year grant funds promising investigators to encourage and promote high-quality research in clinical oncology, paying for personnel and/or research expenses, as well as travel to the ASCO Annual Meeting. The research proposals are peer-reviewed, and awards are given based on individual merit and availability of funds.

At the 2018 ASCO Annual Meeting, Dr. Shenderov was presented with the Conquer Cancer Foundation of ASCO/Ruth Rales Young Investigator Award for his project, “Neoadjuvant B7-H3 Blockade and Immune Marker Analysis in Men with Localized Intermediate and High-Risk Prostate Cancer.”

“A lot of people come to the [application] process thinking that their research might not be worthy of the award, or it’s a long shot,” said Dr. Shenderov. “But the main thing about a peer-reviewed award is that if someone does apply, it’s a good way to have their ideas critically evaluated. If it’s not funded, there’s feedback on how you can improve your research. If it is funded, Conquer Cancer provides validity to your research. Either way, it’s a win-win situation.”

He also stressed that the award can catalyze an important part of a young fellow’s career: taking early ideas, putting them into a comprehensive format, and seeking peer and mentor feedback. 

What Lies Ahead

When asked what he was most excited about in the rapidly changing field of oncology, Dr. Shenderov pointed to the research area to which he has devoted his career: the immune system’s ability to fight cancer.

“When I was a sophomore in high school, we didn’t have the clinical ability to activate a human’s immune system so that we could benefit patients,” said Dr. Shenderov. “But now, we can. And looking forward, it’s a very exciting aspect of a 20-year journey to see patients once deemed incurable receive treatments with their immune system leading the charge. It shows how science takes a long time, but it also shows how 20 years can make a potential research area of interest now a clinical paradigm.”

With a bright future ahead of him, Dr. Shenderov does not forget his past. His own experience as a patient with cancer has taught him invaluable lessons that continue to guide his work every day. 

“To treat a patient in the best possible way, you have to identify with the patient,” said Dr. Shenderov. “Having gone through experiences that a lot of my patients experience—nausea, chemo, uncertainty—has really formed how I connect with patients, with the caveat that every person experiences cancer differently. Seeing the impact that my care had on my parents keeps me aware that I’m treating more than just the person in front of me.” 

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