Faculty Spotlight: Q&A With Maximillian Stahl, MD

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Why did you decide to work in oncology?

As with many other oncologists, the draw to enter the field of oncology was first and foremost my personal experience with cancer affecting my family. My beloved grandfather died of colon cancer when I was still a young child, and that had a profound impact on me. I experienced his transformation from a very active and loving grandfather to becoming very sick and frail at the end of his life. It was hard for me at that point of my life to make sense of my grandfather leaving us way too early. I remember that I had the feeling that if I could help ease the suffering and prolong life for patients like him in the future, that would be a great thing to spend my time on.

Tell us about the condition(s) you specialize in. Why is this an area of interest to you? What led you to focus here?

I specialize in taking care of patients with acute and chronic leukemias, which are cancers of the blood. I also take care of patients with myeloproliferative neoplasms and have a particular interest in myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS). In medical school, I was randomly assigned to the Leukemia ward, and the patients I met there were just the nicest patients: I was amazed by their courage and sense of humor despite having life-threatening diseases. Outcomes for patients at that time were quite poor, as this was prior to the approval of many of the targeted therapies available to patients now. I had a sense that this was a field where lots of work remained to be done. This sense of urgency to do better and come up with improved therapies made me dedicate myself to the field of leukemia. In addition, in order to take care of leukemia patients, one needs to combine good knowledge of biology and basic science with compassionate patient care. This combination was always very attractive to me.

What are the main challenges in this area? How do you address these challenges with patients and families?

While we can cure some patients of their disease, in many leukemia patients we are not able to achieve this yet. I discuss with patients and their families the prognosis of their disease honestly and upfront. I share with them the challenges that lie ahead, but I also tell them that I tend to have an optimistic mindset. I think it is very difficult to live without hope, and I want my patients to not live without hope. While we cannot promise good outcomes, we can certainly promise our very best effort. There is also good reason to be hopeful these days, as we can frequently offer patients treatments that were not available a couple of years ago. At Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, we also conduct clinical trials testing new and promising drugs that are not approved yet for patients in need of better therapies.

Describe your research work in leukemia/MDS. Why is this an area of interest to you?

My research is focused on developing early-phase clinical trials testing novel and not yet approved therapies for patients with myeloid malignancies, such as acute myeloid leukemia and MDS. As somebody who treats patients with these diseases daily, it is obvious to me that we need to do better to allow patients to live longer and have a better quality of life. Taking care of patients who are failed by our current approved therapies is a constant reminder and motivation to keep pushing toward developing new and better treatment approaches.

What are you most excited about in the area of leukemia/MDS? What holds promise for patients?

I truly believe that we live in an unprecedented time in oncology. There was never a better time than now, with so many new drugs getting approved in a short time span. Years of hard work in the basic science laboratories, including at Dana-Farber, are paying off. I am very hopeful about the field of targeted therapies and immunotherapies in leukemia. However, the rubber meets the road when these new ideas are tested in patients: Translate these promising findings in the laboratory into a real benefit for patients is the work that needs to be done in the next years.

What do you like to do when you’re not doing research/caring for patients? What do you do for fun?

My wife and I have an 8-month-old son who keeps us active on weekends. So, we frequently take long walks with him around Jamaica Pond or make little day-trips to Boston’s many charming surrounding seaside towns.