Leukemia specialist: Identifying new treatments is the most gratifying part of my job

Because standard treatments have failed for so many patients, our goal at MD Anderson is to have a clinical trial available for everybody who walks through the door.

Whether they involve entirely new therapies or new combinations of approved drugs, clinical trials are intended to be an advance in medicine — to offer patients something better than what’s currently out there.

That’s why it’s so important to get an accurate diagnosis from the beginning. Different types of even one disease can call for vastly different treatment protocols. And we want to provide our patients with the right therapies from the outset — because our goal is to cure the disease, not just treat the symptoms.

The MD Anderson difference: expertise and personalized care

Any patient who walks through our doors — whether it’s for their first consultation or a second opinion — is going to get a complete workup. And because we perform tests that aren’t usually done by doctors elsewhere, such as bone marrow biopsies and genetic mutation tests, about 20-30% of the time, patients’ diagnoses will actually change. Once we know definitively what each patient has, we can individualize and personalize the best treatment for them, based on their disease’s characteristics.

With leukemia — which is my specialty — there are essentially two types: chronic and acute. Acute leukemia is aggressive and very fast-growing, so it usually causes a quick change in someone’s health. Often, those patients need urgent treatment. Chronic leukemia, on the other hand, is slower-growing, so it doesn’t always need treatment right away. It’s usually picked up during a routine physical exam.

The best way to find out exactly which kind of disease someone has is to visit a high-volume cancer center like MD Anderson. Each of our departments is large enough that its doctors can focus on a particular type of leukemia, rather than just leukemia in general. And our physicians’ high degree of expertise means we are able to treat not only the common cancers, but also the rare ones.

The best part of my job as a leukemia specialist

Early drug development is tricky, and a lot of pre-clinical work goes into developing a clinical trial, but leukemia has seen many advances over the years due to clinical trials that have set new standards of care.

In some cases, new leukemia treatments have brought not just hope, but life, to my patients — who otherwise would not have survived. And that’s why identifying new therapies is the most gratifying part of my job.

William Wierda, M.D., Ph.D., specializes in treating leukemia.

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