ASCO Remembers Dr. Robert L. Comis

May 11, 2017

ASCO and the oncology community are deeply saddened by the loss of Robert L. Comis, MD, FASCO, who passed away on May 10, 2017. Dr. Comis was a powerful voice in support of clinical trials, cooperative group research, and patient advocacy throughout his career.

“Bob helped create the cooperative group enterprise that brought so many advances to patients. He was remarkably talented as a physician, scientist, mentor, and leader, and as a musician, too! Our community is what it is thanks to his selfless dedication, and we will miss him dearly,” said ASCO CEO Clifford A. Hudis, MD, FACP, FASCO.

A leader in international clinical trials research since 1977, Dr. Comis was intrinsically involved in the history and evolution of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Cooperative Groups program from its beginning. An early member of the Cancer and Leukemia Group B (CALGB), in 1995 he took the position of group chair of the Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group (ECOG).

In 2012, ECOG merged with the American College of Radiology Imaging Network (ACRIN) to form the ECOG-ACRIN Cancer Research Group, where Dr. Comis served as group co-chair together with Mitchell D. Schnall, MD, PhD. Dr. Comis envisioned the merger as an opportunity to create a new type of research organization with complementary therapeutic and medical imaging strengths. ECOG-ACRIN designs and conducts biomarker-driven cancer research in adults, with the goal of achieving earlier cancer detection, more successful therapeutic interventions, higher rates of prevention, and better patient outcomes. Most recently, Dr. Comis cemented the group’s capabilities in precision medicine, as ECOG-ACRIN investigators designed and are now conducting the NCI-MATCH (EAY131) trial.

“Bob and I, like so many other clinical investigators of our day, grew up in the cooperative groups,” said ASCO Chief Medical Officer Richard L. Schilsky, MD, FACP, FASCO, who became the group chair of CALGB in 1995. “We were very much brothers in arms, friends, and confidants. I will greatly miss Bob’s passion for clinical research that always placed the interests of patients first, his balanced judgment, and his warm good humor. The cancer community has lost a great leader and staunch champion of publicly funded clinical trials.”

2016-2017 ASCO President Daniel F. Hayes, MD, FACP, FASCO, concurred. “Bob Comis was a giant, and I cannot imagine ECOG-ACRIN, or ASCO, or our field without his gentle but guiding presence,” he said.

Dr. Comis was also the founder, president, and chair of the Coalition of Cancer Cooperative Groups, an organization that coordinates research policy and patient advocacy activities across all of the NCI-funded clinical trials groups. He served as president of the ECOG Research and Education Foundation and president of Alpha Oncology (a clinical research division of the Coalition of Cancer Cooperative Groups).

His leadership in clinical research was evident through his membership on the NCI National Clinical Trials Leadership Management Committee, as well as frequent appearances as an expert before the United States Congress, Institute of Medicine, President’s Cancer Panel, and the National Cancer Advisory Board, among others.

His advocacy for the clinical research enterprise included not only investigators, but fully encompassed patients and the public as well. Dr. Comis was known as a champion of patient access to cancer clinical trials, and led multiple initiatives to raise awareness about the necessity of clinical research in improving prevention, detection, and treatment. In his role as chair of the group chairs of the NCI Cooperative Groups, he raised the international profile of the program and worked to strengthen it for the future, so that everyone affected by cancer might benefit from the advances made possible by innovative, well-conducted studies and evidence-based medicine.

An ASCO member since 1984, Dr. Comis was an active volunteer within the Society, serving on the Board of Directors from 2001 to 2004. He served as chair of the Nominating and Audit Committees and as a subcommittee chair on the Scientific Program Committee. He was a member of the Clinical Trials Workshop Planning, Cancer Communications, Cancer Education, and Finance Committees and Clinical Trials Task Force, among others. He was honored as a Fellow of ASCO (FASCO) in 2008 in recognition of his volunteer contributions.

Dr. Comis also served on the Boards of Directors of the American Radium Society, C-Change, and the National Coalition for Cancer Research; on the editorial boards of the Journal of Clinical Oncology, Cancer Research, and Clinical Cancer Research; and as a member of the Pennsylvania Society of Hematology and Oncology. He authored more than 150 scientific articles, and contributed to more than 20 scientific and medical textbooks on cancer.

A graduate of Fordham University, Dr. Comis earned his medical degree from the State University of New York Health Science Center School of Medicine, where he also completed his medical internship and residency. He served as a staff associate at the NCI and completed a medical oncology fellowship at The Sidney Farber Cancer Center at Harvard Medical School. He held various clinical practice and research leadership positions at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, Temple University School of Medicine, Fox Chase Cancer Center, and Allegheny Cancer Center before joining the faculty at Drexel University as a professor of medicine, a position he held at the time of his passing.

“From our days together at the NCI in the 1970s, Bob’s commitment to cancer clinical trials defined him as the exemplar for clinical research,” said Ronald H. Blum, MD, FASCO, a longtime colleague, collaborator, and friend of Dr. Comis. “His talents were many, not least of which was his extraordinary virtuosity at the piano. He was a valued friend and colleague to many who benefited from knowing him.”

Funeral arrangements: Visitation for Dr. Comis will take place Sunday, May 14, 6 PM to 8 PM, and Monday, May 15, 8 AM to 10 AM, at Angelone Funeral Home in Willow Grove, PA. A funeral mass will be said on Monday, May 15, 10:30 AM, at St. David's Church in Willow Grove. 


Suresh S. Ramalingam, MD

May, 11 2017 8:01 PM

The field of cancer has lost one of its outstanding leaders today. I was fortunate to work closely with Bob at ECOG-ACRIN over the past 10 years. He never stopped thinking about patients and building a community that is dedicated to the collective cause of reducing the burden of cancer. He was a friend, mentor and teacher to many, and excelled in all of these spheres. During the spring ECOG-ACRIN meeting that just concluded 5 days ago, Bob was proud of the completion of the MATCH study and all the outstanding contributions made by the group. His work will carry on through those of us he guided, and through the organization (ECOG-ACRIN) that was close to his heart. We will all miss him dearly.

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