September 8, 2016:

Mohammed Milhem, MBBS, has joined the Big Ten Cancer Research Consortium Steering Committee, representing the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Iowa. The committee, composed of one representative from each member institution, meets on a regular basis to review activities of the consortium and decide matters of policy. The committee determines the criteria for approving concepts for development within the BTCRC.

A Palestinian born in Kuwait with a Jordanian nationality, Milhem completed medical school at the University of Jordan. A career in medicine was a path he chose early in life. “I made the decision at the age of 12,” Milhem said. “I wanted to become a doctor because I just wanted to know what the human body was all about.”

He completed his residency and fellowship at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He then returned to Jordan. “In 2004, I made the decision to go back home to Jordan and help establish the King Hussein Cancer Center,” Milhem said. “I spent three years there and then I met my wife. She came to Iowa, I found the job here in Iowa and became a melanoma and sarcoma specialist.”

At the University of Iowa, Milhem is associate director for clinical research and director of multidisciplinary policy groups. “This is important, because it allows me to see all the different cancers in the institution and allows me to understand where the research goals are and to align some of the clinical investigation that we have,” he said. “It puts me in a good position to see the work we’re doing here at the university. Immunotherapy, epigenetics therapy, metabolism, free radical biology, and imaging are very strong here.”

Milhem, like the cancer center at the University of Iowa, is unafraid to think outside the box. “We’re exploring things that nobody really wants to explore,” he said. “One of our strengths is we’re looking at things that are not mainstream.”

Much of Milhem’s current work, trials, and focus are on introducing readily accepted concepts in the hematological world into the solid tumor world. “I’m trying to introduce a concept that I learned in the lab. I’m trying to epigenetically manipulate solid tumor biology to either be more responsive to therapies that might be available or to direct it as a therapy for potentially treating patients with cancer,” Milhem said.

A “novel” therapy

 As an oncologist, Milhem has pioneered his own novel therapy: he blogs. “It’s actually very cathartic,” he said. “One of the things people don’t understand is that oncologists are very passionate people, passionate about their patients and their care,” Milhem reflects. “A lot of times we carry things that we never get a chance to verbalize back to the people around us.”

But Milhem has found his avenue for expression.

“It’s a simple message,” he said. “It is: you want to connect with your patient, you want to make them feel better, but you don’t want to dismiss that you are just as human as they are, and the answer is not necessarily with you, but you are trying to help them navigate a journey that they have.”

Milhem encourages other oncologists to consider blogging. “I think if oncologists did this more often, they may find it useful for themselves as well as for their community,” he said.

He has seen profound impacts of his candid chronicles. “It’s actually changed the perception,” he said. “I’m not some person here trying to save their life only – I’m also a human being trying to figure out what the next step is, and I’m trying to do it in a collective, humanistic way.”

Milhem recalls one impactful encounter: “One of the comments that my patient made when he was reading my blog was, ‘Mo, you are so human,’ and I’m like, ‘Well yeah, there is a part of me that is human, I guess,’ and it brought me closer to my patients. There’s a personal relationship in that they now know me as a person; they don’t see me as just a doctor.”

A natural collaborator

 Milhem’s transparent, collaborative approach to oncology suits him well for his new role in the BTCRC.  “Collaboration allows us to see each other better, to improve upon the diversity and the expertise that we have,” he said. “I think collaboration reduces errors, makes better trials, strengthens the science, brings out truths, and puts the right people together. The more we can share information with each other, the better and stronger we become.”

Milhem credits the strength of the BTCRC to what he calls “competitive collaboration.”

“I believe in competitive collaboration, where I could share information with someone knowing that they’re going to get stronger, but hoping that they would share that information back with me and make me stronger too,” he said. “I think that’s the best type of relationship that is fostered within the BTCRC.”

Milhem is already involved in the BTCRC as co-chair of the Melanoma Clinical Trial Working Group (CTWG), one of ten disease-specific groups that bring senior and junior investigators together to discuss novel approaches to treating disease. These working groups provide the venue for investigator-initiated research concepts from member institutions to be honed into clinical trials that are ready for activation across multiple BTCRC member institutions.

Milhem recognizes the value of the BTCRC in enabling connections to be made across cancer types. “The BTCRC is doing the social part of connecting scientists, researchers, and clinical trialists in a way that is important,” he said.

He values the collaboration within the BTCRC and considers it a relevant, tangible, direct benefit to patients. “I think everything should revolve around the patients,” Milhem said. “For me, being part of a regional group where my patients may want access to a certain idea – that idea might be coming from one of the BTCRC member institutions. It is really nice to tell them, ‘This came out of this institution and I know the person personally.’ This collaboration benefits me in presenting an honest, more direct picture of what we are doing to help the patient understand their disease.”

Milhem also appreciates that the BTCRC is big, but not “bulky.”

“You need a smaller group that is nimble, easier to put together, faster in moving,” he said. “Medicine is changing very quickly. The fun part for me is, I think the little organization is going to move a little bit quicker than most of the other larger places and might be able to do more novel designs.”

A vision of hope

 Milhem brings to his new role his vision for the future. “I think patients are going to live longer,” he said.  “I think we’re going to change cancer from a disease that frightens us to a disease that we understand. I have hope that we’re going to have a deeper understanding of ourselves as human beings because of this disease.”

About the Big Ten Cancer Research Consortium: The Big Ten Cancer Research Consortium was created in 2013 to transform the conduct of cancer research through collaborative, hypothesis-driven, highly translational oncology trials that leverage the scientific and clinical expertise of Big Ten universities. The goal of the Big Ten Cancer Research Consortium is to create a unique team-research culture to drive science rapidly from ideas to new approaches to cancer treatment. Within this innovative environment, today’s research leaders collaborate with and mentor the research leaders of tomorrow with the unified goal of improving the lives of all patients with cancer.

About the Big Ten Conference: The Big Ten Conference is an association of world-class universities whose member institutions share a common mission of research, graduate, professional and undergraduate teaching and public service. Founded in 1896, the Big Ten has sustained a comprehensive set of shared practices and policies that enforce the priority of academics in the lives of students competing in intercollegiate athletics and emphasize the values of integrity, fairness and competitiveness. The broad-based programs of the 14 Big Ten institutions will provide over $200 million in direct financial support to almost 9,500 students for more than 11,000 participation opportunities on 350 teams in 42 different sports. The Big Ten sponsors 28 official conference sports, 14 for men and 14 for women, including the addition of men’s ice hockey and men’s and women’s lacrosse since 2013. For more information, visit www.bigten.org.