New chief science officer at Hematology-Oncology Associates wants to bring more cancer-related research, new clinical trials to the area
By Chris Motola
Q: You’ve recently joined Hematology-Oncology Associates of Central New York.
A: Yes, I did. Though I’m not new to the area.
Q: How did you become involved with the group?
A: So I’ve been in this community for about 25 years, since the ‘90s, when I arrived to train at Upstate Medical University where I completed my internal medicine residency and then my hematology-oncology fellowship. Then I stayed on, worked for the VA for a little bit. So I was always aware of Hematology-Oncology Associates throughout that time. But at that time I was very focused on being an academic physician, in being an educator on top of being a practicing doctor. I was also very involved in research. At some point I decided to make research my main focus. About four year ago, I transitioned to an industry position where I was working on clinical research, designing and conducting trials for new and emerging therapies. Eventually, I found myself dearly missing actual patient contact and decided to come back to practice.
Q: What were your main considerations?
A: All this while, I never left the area—some of the positions were remote and that was before work from home became fashionable. But I decided I needed to return to bedside, to the clinic. Hematology-Oncology Associates has a high quality of care, they’re very involved in research, and I have many friends here. Many of the doctors were collaborators in the past. And when you’ve been in the community this long, you tend to share a lot of patients. So I knew the practice well, and it seemed like a very good fit, especially in terms of bringing access to research and new therapies to the community.
Q: How do you balance research and patient work?
A: I think oncology is somewhat unique out of all specialties, because research is almost a daily part of our clinical care. Even though we’ve made great progress in therapeutics, there’s still a lot of ground to be covered. We do this by providing the appropriate clinical trials to patients. The way clinical trials work is already ingrained in our clinical practice. Of course there are certain regulatory requirements for conducting research in an ethical and appropriate manner. We’re able to offer trials as part of our daily practice. And oncology patients tend to be more receptive to participation. Many times they’ll even travel to New York City or Boston to participate in them. Our goal, as much as possible, is to bring new trials to our community to minimize travel and make it easier to find the newest therapies right here in town.
Q: Is there any research you’re working on now that you’re particularly proud of?
A: I would say, having just gotten here, we’re really wrapping up our research on breast cancer, lung cancer, colon cancer and blood cancer. That’s one part. Number two, there’s a greater emphasis on what’s called real world evidence research. Meaning not necessarily within the confines of a clinical trial. In the real world, when patients get treated, outcomes may be different with different therapies. So we’re working with a large national organization, the National Cancer Care Alliance. I recently got named as the chair of the research committees for NCCA. So we really hope that we’ll be able to enhance our real world evidence-based research through our participation. So in the short term, I’d say that’s something that I’m proud of. And also it’ll give our practice and our geographic area some visibility throughout the country.
Q: Are you still doing any teaching?
A: I maintain a voluntary position as a clinical faculty professor at Upstate. Certainly as opportunities present I’d like to do it in a more formal manner, but informally, of course, we have many nurse practitioners and physicians assistants here. I happen to have a research team with research nurses. So I enjoy sharing knowledge and educating other team members.
Q: You’re coming off a medical director position. Are you trying to move away from administrative work in general or are you still taking on some administrative duties at your new position?
A: My position here is chief science officer, so my focus is going to be on building up the research program and modernizing the research infrastructure and enhancing the offerings for new clinical trials that we can bring to the area. So that’s going to be my main focus, at least for the next three years.
Q: What elements make a good research program in this age of vast, distant networks?
A: While the pandemic has been a very unfortunate situation, it’s also forced a rapid growth in technology. I will say there are two components. The first is you need the appropriate staff, with the appropriate training on site. And you need other things, like a dedicated laboratory with the appropriate facilities and pharmacy support to conduct research. The other part is that the art and science of conducting clinical research is evolving rapidly in this post-pandemic world. We’re able to do many things electronically. We’re able to do telehealth visits for patients who are in the study, which can make it a lot easier for them. We’re able to sign consent documents electronically. So these things were not done in the past out of concern for regulatory compliance, but now that we’ve demonstrated that it’s feasible and safe to do a lot of these things, so hopefully that will make it simpler not only for patients, but for staff conducting research to successfully carry out the trials.
Name: Ajeet Gajra, M.D.
Position: Chief science officer at Hematology-Oncology Associates of CNY
Hometown: New Delhi, India
Career: Recently served as chief medical officer at Cardinal Health and associate director of the Upstate Cancer Center, where he also served as medical director. Has published over 110 peer-reviewed manuscripts in journals including Journal of Clinical Oncology, Cancer, Lancet Oncology, New England Journal of Medicine and Blood.
Affiliations: St. Joseph’s Hospital; Crouse Hospital; University Hospital; VA Hospital
Organizations: American College of Physicians; American Medical Society; American Society of Clinical Oncology; American Society of Hematology; National Cancer Care Alliance
Family: Wife; two children
Hobbies: Hiking, nature-based activities