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Chuwuemeka Ihemelandu, MD Receives SSO 2021 Clinical Investigator Award for Under-Represented (Black Indigenous People of Color/BIPOC) Surgeons Award

IHEMALANDU emekaIn 2007, SSO established a Clinical Investigator Award (CIA) program to promote patient-focused research by training surgical oncologists in clinical and translational science. Since then, 38 SSO members have received research grants for their proposals. Dr. Chuwuemeka Ihemelandu is the first recipient of SSO’s BIPOC award, which specifically supports the research of under-represented (black indigenous people of color/BIPOC) surgeons. His grant, funded by Genentech, is titled “Peptide-based Imaging for Interoperative Fluorescence-guided Colorectal Cancer Surgery.”

How long have you been a surgical oncologist? Where do you practice, and what is your area of expertise?

I have been a surgical oncologist for nine years. Medstar Georgetown University Hospital, where I continue to practice, recruited me to join their medical staff In 2012 following the completion of a fellowship at Wake Forest University. Edward Levine, MD, my mentor at Wake Forest, introduced me to the treatment of peritoneal surface malignancy and it captivated me. It happens that Wake Forest is  one of the largest medical centers to treat patients with this malignancy.

How would you describe the genesis and scope of your research?

My current investigation is an extension of my work at Wake Forest. Surgical treatment of peritoneal surface malignancy is a complex, time-intensive, physically taxing surgery. Because this procedure removes all visible cancer, one might expect patients to do well following a combination of surgery and intraperitoneal chemotherapy. Surgery alone should be enough to treat them because these early-stage colorectal cancer patients show no sign of lymph node-positive disease. Yet, we discovered that 20 to 25% of these patients returned with a recurrence in the peritoneal cavity after six to 12 months, leading us to conclude chemotherapy was not effectively removing all microscopic disease. We were not doing a good enough job of identifying those patients who needed follow up therapy. There had to be a way to identify and subsequently treat the microscopic disease at the time of surgery if we hoped to improve patient outcomes.

How long have you been working on this idea and what led you to your hypothesis?

I worked on a couple of studies and published a few papers that led to this research. One study examined data over two decades of patients who were treated with cytoreduction and chemotherapy. We saw that too many patients treated with cytoreduction and hypertronic peritoneal chemotherapy over the past couple of decades were failing and I could not understand why. That led me to look for biomarkers that could help identify microscopic the time of surgery, and I identified a cancer stem cell marker. I discovered an abundance of these biomarkers were found in patients with metastasized colorectal cancer. This is the preliminary work I did in my early years as faculty at Georgetown, and this is what led to my current proposal.

Our investigation is currently at the pre-clinical stage. We are studying disease diagnosis and treatment in mice in the hopes of generating enough data to secure additional funding that would allow us to develop a clinical trial where we can test this hypothesis. Christopher Albanese, MD, professor of oncology, and founder and executive director of the Preclinical Imaging Research Lab at Georgetown University has mentored me over the last three years. He provided space in his lab, which includes access to all of Georgetown’s shared resources.

If our hypothesis proves correct, SSO members and their patients will benefit because our work is both diagnostic and therapeutic in nature. Instead of waiting for histopathology test results, surgeons will be able to determine and implement treatment options in real time. This will help advance the treatment of colorectal cancer, especially given the increase of disease in younger patients.

It seems that you enjoy working in the field of peritoneal surfacy malignancy. How do you find  balance between PSM and your work with colorectal cancer patients?

I have been blessed with great mentors. They have mentored me on how best to balance clinical work with research and all the other requirements an investigator is expected to fulfill. In addition, early in my career I developed a time management regimen. Key to my success thus far is having a chairman who is supportive of my vision and my goal of becoming an academic researcher. With a supportive team and enough funding, I’ve been able to balance being in the operating room with being in the lab.

It can be challenging for minority surgeons to get started because there are fewer of us to begin with. I applaud the SSO and Genetech for developing a grant intended for under-represented researchers. It’s always nice when institutions like SSO makes it a priority to ensure that everyone has access to grants and resources that will move their careers forward. I would also like to thank Genentech for funding this grant.

Do you think there are more opportunities emerging for minority surgeons?

I’m encouraged by the increase in efforts being made to specifically target minority surgeons, inspiring them to apply for funding and be more engaged in research. More minority surgeons will engage in research when they see more opportunities and funding are available. I do know that opportunities made possible by SSO and other organizations make it easier for people like me to search for grants that not only move our careers forward, but contribute to improved patient outcomes.

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