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Q&A with Taofeek Owonikoko, MD, PhD

November 23, 2022

This story was first published by UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. To view the original article, click here.

This research highlight focuses on Taofeek K. Owonikoko, MD, PhD. Dr. Owonikoko is Chief of the Division of Hematology/Oncology, Associate Director for Translational Research, and Co-Leader of the Cancer Therapeutics Program at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. This Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity.

In your own words, can you explain your research interests?

My interest revolves around investigation in the lab to gain a better understanding of the biology of lung cancer, in particular small cell lung cancer. I also engage in conducting clinical research that involves phase I trials of new compounds coming to the clinic and later efficacy trials in phase II and III to improve current standard of care options for lung cancer.

How did you become interested in this type of work?

I have always been attracted to research starting from my time in medical school. My graduate studies in pathology allowed me to get a deeper understanding of lab-based research. It was during my fellowship training that I became interested in phase I trials of early phase compounds. As a junior faculty at Emory, I received a K grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) that enabled me to devote even greater time to research while also allowing me enough time to enroll in a formal training in clinical research. This led to my master’s degree in clinical research.

What contribution does your research make to the field of lung cancer research? Cancer research overall?

I have tried to bring the idea of bench to bedside to lung cancer research, whereby findings in the lab directly informed the design and conduct of clinical trials in small cell lung cancer. Examples of such work include the initial work from my lab showing the potential benefit of adding a PARP inhibitor to standard chemotherapy for small cell lung cancer. This work directly led to the design and conduct of two large randomized multicenter clinical trials of veliparib plus chemotherapy.

Beyond institutional studies that bring lab findings to the clinic, I participate in the NCI Experimental Therapeutics Cancer Trials Network where I lead phase I trials of new anticancer agents. I am also actively engaged with national research groups such as the ECOG-ACRIN Cancer Research Group, Southwest Oncology Group, and NRG Oncology to use bigger platforms to conduct large trials designed to establish new standards for small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer. I have served as study chair for several studies conducted by these groups.

Finally, given the increasing cost of cancer clinical trials and the limited resources available to support such trials by the National Institutes of Health, an increasing number, and indeed most cancer clinical trials, are now funded by pharmaceutical companies. I have successfully forged a direct partnership with the industry to design important early and late phase clinical trials. My research across these many platforms has contributed to advances in the treatment of lung cancer and other cancer types.

How do you see the field of lung cancer research changing over the next 10 years? How will your work contribute to that change?

The convergence of cancer genomics and cancer immunology will have a profound impact on lung cancer research in the coming decade. My lab will continue to directly contribute to our increasing understanding of lung cancer. I expect that strategic collaboration with other investigators with complementary expertise in the field of lung cancer research will synergize and amplify the impact of our work on the field.

In 2019, you contributed to an article in the ASCO Educational Book on enrollment of racial minorities in clinical trials. Can you speak on the importance of enrolling minority patients in clinical trials, specifically for lung cancer?

Clinical research is the most reliable tool currently available for bringing new treatment strategies into the management of cancer, including lung cancer. Equitable distribution of opportunities to participate in trials ensures that every segment of the society bears the burden of cancer drug development. On the other hand, the lag time from clinical trial to eventual approval of a specific drug as a standard of care option can range anywhere from several years to decades. Inequitable access to promising intervention as part of a clinical trial may therefore contribute to disparity in cancer outcomes across different ethnic and racial subgroups. This is an important challenge that policy makers, investigators, regulatory agencies, and individual investigators and their institutions are working to address.

What brought you to UPMC Hillman Cancer Center?

The opportunity to contribute to and be a part of the efforts to actualize the vision by the institution to transform our cancer program from a good program to a great program brought me here. The ingredients for this transformation are already in place — the robust basic science taking place all over the University of Pittsburgh campus, the extensive network of clinical practice locations not just for cancer but for health care delivery in general, and the strong partnership with the community. The opportunity to be a part of the leadership tasked to catalyze this transformation was a great attraction for me to come back to UPMC Hillman Cancer Center.

What do you consider to be the most important aspect of the work you do?

I consider every aspect of my work to be particularly important. The most important varies depending on the task at hand. On balance, however, the opportunity and privilege to take care of patients is what I consider to be most important. Also, I am passionate about my administrative and leadership responsibilities, which are critical to actualizing the long-term vision set by the institutional leadership to develop a thriving and competitive academic division of hematology and oncology that will be a model to be emulated by other institutions nationwide.