Cancer doesn’t have to be a death sentence. There are more options available today, than there were ten or even five years ago, and we continue to innovate to bring the next generation of cancer therapies to market that will hopefully one day help to bring our vision to eliminate cancer to life.
Cancer is a horrible and terrifying disease. There is so much great information out there, but sometimes it is very difficult to filter out the noise. What causes cancer? Can it be prevented? How do you detect it? What are the odds of survival today? What are the different forms of cancer? What are the best treatments? And what is the best way to support someone impacted by cancer?
In this interview series called, “5 Things Everyone Needs To Know About Cancer,” we are talking to cancer experts, including oncologists, researchers, and medical directors, to address these questions. As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Imran Khan.
Imran is the Vice President of Hematology Medical Affairs with Janssen US Oncology. As a physician and pharmaceutical leader, Imran has devoted his career to understanding and treating the various types of blood cancer.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
I began my career as a physician but was inspired to move into the pharmaceutical industry after seeing firsthand what a difference advanced and innovative treatments can make in a cancer patient’s life. For me, it started when I worked as the clinical lead for the Janssen US Oncology team focused on the progression of multiple myeloma, a currently incurable blood cancer. Throughout clinical trials and scientific research, I watched participants benefit from treatment and it opened my eyes to the crucial role medical affairs plays in advancing patient care and oncology innovation.
While that was many years ago, I still get notes from people whose lives have been positively impacted by Janssen’s treatments, and that really means something to me because helping cancer patients is why I do what I do. But treatments and medicine can only help people when they are available and if everyone has access to them. Over the course of my career, I’ve realized I can play a role in making that happen. Today, my team at Janssen is using new technologies and innovations to glean critical data on patient diagnoses, treatment and outcomes, and that information better equips us to work with healthcare providers to improve care options and access to care.
This is not easy work. What is your primary motivation and drive behind the work that you do?
At Janssen, employees like me are inspired by our mission to reimagine care so patients can redefine living and, hopefully have more time and important moments with the ones they love.
Helping patients is truly the motivation behind the work my team and I do at Janssen Oncology. We listen to and learn from the people whose lives are affected by cancer so we can help drive better outcomes.
When my father-in-law was diagnosed with cancer, there was an investigational product which may have helped him. While his cancer advanced too quickly, I remember his words to me — “maybe not for me, but for someone after me.” That stuck with me.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
Janssen is a leader in the quest to bring targeted innovations to patients that treat, and someday, will cure multiple myeloma. For this complex disease, we are intentional about expanding our portfolio to address unique cellular targets, creating comprehensive immunotherapy regimens and pushing the boundaries of treatment to offer patients and physicians medicines and administration options they have not had before. Long-term remission is an important goal in achieving our visions of delivering a cure to everyone who is living with multiple myeloma, and with our strong commitment and deep expertise in multiple myeloma, we believe Janssen Oncology is uniquely positioned to continue leading the way.
Additionally, we are working on some really exciting things in our solid tumor business, specifically in lung, prostate and bladder cancer. My counterparts in solid tumor are looking at the promise of precision medicine to bring more personalized care to identify the distinct patient populations most likely to benefit from a specific treatment, in contrast to the traditional “one size fits all” approach. Beyond treating disease, precision medicine includes prevention, disease screening, diagnostics, and monitoring, which can identify those who are at risk before disease strikes, detect early signs of disease, and find disease subtypes that impact treatment response. Precision medicine has already transformed healthcare and is a focus for Janssen as part of our tireless work to make meaningful change for patients living with cancer as well as all other areas of medicine.
I love the work we’re doing across these disease areas, but I also want to bring up that the work we’re doing won’t have an impact if they can’t reach the people who need them. One of the areas I’m most excited about is our work in health equity to create greater access to clinical trials and life-saving treatments. For example, increasing diversity in clinical trials is critical to forward progress in addressing health equity. To overcome systemic barriers, Janssen U.S. Oncology launched a new comprehensive approach that starts with study planning and goes through clinical trial enrollment completion and is designed to improve access for racial and ethnic minorities in oncology trials. We’re working with patient groups and advocacy organizations to ensure our clinical trials are truly representative of all patients who may benefit from the innovative treatment options we provide.
For the benefit of our readers, can you briefly let us know why you are an authority about the topic of cancer?
I’m VP of Medical Affairs for Hematology at Janssen US Oncology. I lead our U.S. team responsible for all medical aspects of the Hematology portfolio in the U.S. I also hold an M.D. degree from Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and a Ph.D. in Physiology Biophysics with a dissertation focused on hematology/oncology from Albert Einstein College of Medicine. I’ve spent 20 years in clinical work or research to develop cancer treatments that have brought us closer than ever to a cure.
Ok, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Let’s start with some basic definitions so that we are all on the same page. What exactly is cancer?
Cancer is both devasting and deeply personal. It’s defined as a disease in which abnormal cells divide out of control and invade nearby tissue. There are many forms of cancer, and I predominately focus on blood cancers.
What causes cancer?
Scientists today haven’t linked a singular cause for cancer. Cancer is caused by changes to genes that control the way cells function. Cancer can result from several types of genetic changes including errors that occur when cells divide, damage to DNA caused by harmful substances such as tobacco or UV from the sun or from our family history.
While we may not be able to control the genetic changes happening at the cellular level, we do know that lifestyle has some implications for cancer. Some of the top markers for being at higher risk of cancer include cigarette smoking, obesity, excessive drinking, too much sun, and inactivity. Focusing on healthy habits can reduce your risk factors of developing cancer. Preventative screenings can also help reduce your risk. Cancer is a complex disease and can be tricky to spot, so regular screenings have been shown to decrease deaths from certain cancers.
As an oncology community, we’re working hard to understand the causes of different forms of cancer and how we can develop treatments that intercept and fight it at the earliest stages.
What is the difference between the different forms of cancer?
Every cancer is different, each with unique challenges and paths of care. At Janssen, we’re focused on mastering areas where we can make the most meaningful difference for patients, partners and the entire oncology community. Our scientists are predominately focused specifically on blood cancers, like multiple myeloma, and solid tumor cancers, such as prostate cancer, lung cancer, and bladder cancer. Blood cancers are caused by abnormal blood cells growing out of control or disrupting the way normal blood cells function. Solid tumors are abnormal masses of tissues that don’t contain any liquid or cysts. Oncologists identify the type of cancer and stage of development, among other factors, to determine a treatment path.
I know that the next few questions are huge topics, but we’d love to hear your thoughts regardless. How can cancer be prevented?
We have a global vision to eliminate cancer. While we do know how to reduce some of the risk factors for developing cancer, we don’t yet know how cancer can be prevented altogether. However, we’re encouraged by the continued work toward new treatments that help to get in front of cancer and will hopefully give patients and their families more time to celebrate life’s big and small moments.
By advancing our understanding of disease biology, it’s possible to intervene earlier and potentially even intercept cancer. The next frontier of cancer research goes beyond early detection to determine why some healthy cells turn cancerous in the first place. By identifying pre-malignant cells, it might be possible to target them before they become more aggressive and resistant to treatment.
While cancer can’t be prevented today, we do know that the cancer is personal and everyone’s risk factors, health considerations and access to care are different. The more we can focus on healthy habits, addressing disparities in access to care and educating people about risk factors, the better chance we have at keeping our communities and the people we love healthy.
How can one detect the main forms of cancer?
The first step in detecting cancer is taking proactive measures like regular screenings. It’s important to maintain a regular cadence of screenings according to your physician’s recommendations and based on your health and risk factors. Genetic testing can also provide important insights into risk factors for specific types of cancer and predict your risk of getting a particular disease. It can also determine if you have genes that may pass down to children, increasing their risk of particular cancers. In addition to maintaining a healthy lifestyle and regular screenings, genetic testing is a key preventive measure.
Cancer used to almost be a death sentence, but it seems that it has changed today. What are the odds of surviving cancer today?
Generally, research suggests that despite a steady decrease in cancer mortality rates in recent years, more than half of Americans (62%) still see cancer as a death sentence. While some cancers are more aggressive and difficult to treat than others, advances in diagnosis and treatment have, in some cases, turned cancer into more of a life assignment — a disease you can live, and continue to thrive, with.
With targeted therapies and immunotherapies, cancer treatment can be more effective and less toxic, enabling individuals to manage their disease while also maintaining quality of life. This means that for some people, they can continue to participate in important life events, spend time with loved ones and pursue their hobbies and interests, even while undergoing treatment. Every case is different and of course patients should talk to their doctor about their specific treatment plan and potential outcomes. But, our hope is that we can help providing more time and opportunities for patients to celebrate life, which, from working directly with patients over the years, I believe can have a profound impact on the physical, and emotional well-being of individuals and their families.
Can you share some of the new cutting-edge treatments for cancer that have recently emerged? What new cancer treatment innovations are you most excited to see come to fruition in the near future?
Historically, oncology was defined as chemotherapy or some version of that. But today, there can be multiple options depending on the stage and type of a patient’s disease.
One innovation I’m interested in is immuno-oncology, where advances in science and innovations in targeted therapies are helping to harness the power of a person’s immune system to fight off the very cancer that plagues them. Immuno-oncology (I-O), from my perspective, is one of the most significant advancements in treating cancer to date.
Identifying how to leverage a patient’s immune system by addressing immune exhaustion, evasion and resistance is a key capability at Janssen and part of our focus on patients with advanced cancer and on cancer interception. This focus has led Janssen U.S. Oncology to form a dedicated, multi-functional team entirely focused on immune therapy research to evaluate new ways for harnessing the immune system against cancer.
Today, patients are more educated and aware of life-saving options. They’re in a better position to advocate for themselves and collaborate with their care team to access the treatments that not only will improve their outcomes but also restore a level of normalcy to their life so they can continue to be engaged and participate in the activities and moments that matter to them most. I’m excited to see what’s next for immuno-oncology and its ability to make an impact for patients.
Healing usually takes place between doctor visits. What have you found to be most beneficial to assist a patient to heal?
The role of caregivers is incredibly important and often a significant contributor to a patient’s treatment and recovery. Outside of the clinical environment, the role of caregivers is as important if not more important. Cancer treatment and care is more than what you see in the office — most of the progress and recovery is done at home with the support of friends and family.
Throughout treatment it’s important for patients to consider the state of their mental health and what they need in order to feel like themselves again. Self-care, in whatever form that takes for each person, is a critical part of the treatment process. Understanding and processing your emotions, taking stock of your mental health, restoring normalcy where you can, and taking care of your physical health are all part of the care journey.
Cancer is largely out of our control and can often be fraught with loneliness, frustration, helplessness and confusion. A strong support network, advancements in treatments with reduced side effects, and a focus on self-care can significantly improve not only the treatment process but the ultimate health outcomes.
From your experience, what are a few of the best ways to support a loved one, friend, or colleague who is impacted by cancer?
Cancer is not one-size-fits all — two patients could receive the same diagnosis but respond differently to the same treatment plan. For patients, the ability to get back to some semblance of normalcy and take back control over their lives is important for their mental health and has impact on their physical health as well. The isolation and life-altering side effects of chemotherapy can take a toll on mental health and create an even more challenging treatment journey. With advances in immuno-oncology, our hope is that patients can continue to undergo treatment while experiencing fewer side effects and a greater ability to participate in the life happening around them.
Between treatments and doctor visits, it’s important for patients to have a support network and community that they can depend on for help. In my clinical practice, I’ve often witnessed the shock patients experience when they receive a cancer diagnosis and it’s quite regularly the friend or family member who’s with them who will need to help the patient process, understand, and determine how to approach their treatment plan. Unfortunately, not everyone has an existing support network, but advocacy and patient groups can help fulfill that need by providing services, assistance, and resources.
What are a few of the biggest misconceptions and myths out there about fighting cancer that you would like to dispel?
Conversations and perception about cancer are often driven by fear and anxiety, particularly those based on outdated ideas about what it means to live with or be at risk for cancer. It’s critical that patients are well-informed about risk factors, specific types of cancer and treatment options. For example, without the proper information, many men avoid prostate cancer screenings as it’s believed prostate cancer can negatively impact sexual performance. And, lung cancer is often perceived as a disease that only impacts smokers but in reality, research has found that globally, 15–20% of men with lung cancer are non-smokers while more 50% of women with lung cancer are non-smokers. These are just a few of the misconceptions about cancer. Ultimately, more informed and empower patients are one of the keys to improving outcomes.
Thank you so much for all of that. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what are your “5 Things Everyone Needs To Know About Cancer? Please share a story or example for each.
- Cancer doesn’t have to be a death sentence. There are more options available today, than there were ten or even five years ago, and we continue to innovate to bring the next generation of cancer therapies to market that will hopefully one day help to bring our vision to eliminate cancer to life.
- There’s power in your immune system and now is the time to harness it. Science is unlocking the power of the innate immune system to optimize its ability to fight the cancer that plagues patients. Innovative targeted therapies, precision medicine, and advancements in immuno-oncology will enable us to use the immune system to fight the cancer cells more accurately and earlier.
- Collaborating with patients is key. It’s critical that the oncology community work with patients collaboratively by listening to and engaging with them throughout the care journey. We learn so much from patients when we can hear from them first-hand.
- Personalized care is the future. The days of one-size-fits-all treatments are long gone. We’re now able to use companion diagnostics to help identify patients who are most likely to respond to a therapy or have the best outcomes with a specific treatment course.
- At Janssen Oncology, we are working together to reimagine care so patients can redefine living. We know most people have been impacted by cancer in some way, and we are striving towards a future where we can reshape cancer from a deadly disease into a preventable — and potentially curable — one. Our team is focused on pushing boundaries, challenging the status quo and looking beyond traditional approaches to identify new and better ways of doing things on behalf of the patients we serve.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
An idea that’s central to my ethos is the concept of being a life-long learner. As healthcare providers and physicians, we need to always look for newer and better tools, treatments and approaches.
As a physician, I think about our approach in terms of “Bench, Bedside and Beyond.” The “Bench” means understandings a pathway, a tumor marker or the textbook approach to treatment. The “Bedside” means getting to know the patient, understanding their needs and their response to treatment, and adapting to their personal circumstances. The “Beyond” is how we use data analytics, AI and other innovations to change the way we treat cancer.
We can’t settle for what is, we have to push for what could be.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
For updates on my work with Janssen US Oncology, you can follow me on LinkedIn. https://www.linkedin.com/in/imran-khan-md-phd-a486a39
Thank you so much for these insights! This was very inspirational and we wish you continued success in your great work.