Kald Abdallah, driven by a personal passion, wants to discover ways to treat cancer earlier

Research into immunotherapy for earlier-stage cancers shows promise

May 17, 2021
K

ald Abdallah remembers the moment that changed the course of his life and career. He had been working as a transplant physician in the late 1990s when he came across a groundbreaking scientific paper –one that showed how immunotherapy might harness the body’s immune system to fight cancer.

Kald Abdallah, senior vice president of Worldwide Medical Oncology at Bristol Myers Squibb

Kald Abdallah, senior vice president of Worldwide Medical Oncology at Bristol Myers Squibb

Abdallah, who is currently senior vice president of Worldwide Medical Oncology at Bristol Myers Squibb, had once felt that little could be done for cancer, especially after witnessing a friend in medical school grapple with the disease. He had accordingly planned his career to go in a different direction, but all that changed when he read the paper about immunotherapy. Now, he felt called to make a difference in this new field. 

“I had an epiphany. I said, ‘This is what I have to do with my life.’”

Soon, Abdallah had accepted an academic position and moved from the U.S. to Brazil, collaborating with colleagues to put immunotherapy research into motion. Years later, one of his former colleagues, a close friend, shared sad news – a routine procedure had unexpectedly led to a diagnosis of cancer. The friend immediately began treatment and underwent surgery, but the illness took a toll.

“I flew to Brazil to visit my friend, and I saw the difference in him. He had lost so much weight. He was so thin,” said Abdallah.

Despite receiving top-notch care, Abdallah’s friend did not have a good prognosis after surgery because the initial pre-surgical treatment had failed to eliminate residual disease, and there was a high risk of recurrence in the near future. “There was so little we could do to treat cancer following surgery back then,” said Abdallah, who kept in constant contact with his friend. “You feel so impotent. You feel powerless.” 

As feared, the cancer returned, and Abdallah’s friend passed away, leaving behind a wife and young child. Family and friends struggled to cope with the loss of the man Abdallah called “the most amazing and kind person you can find.”

Kald Abdallah’s friend

Kald Abdallah’s friend

He was someone who made an indelible impact on the lives of those around him.

“Every time I go to Brazil, I visit his grave,” said Abdallah. “I would visit his grave on a random day and time, and yet I always found someone else there, a friend or a relative, even years later.”

Research advances in cancer at earlier stages

As years have ticked by, Abdallah reflects that advances in cancer treatment might have changed his friend’s prognosis if the cancer had struck today. In his role at Bristol Myers Squibb, Abdallah is intimately involved in the development of immunotherapy approaches with the hope of having significant impact in earlier stages of different cancer types. 

“The theory is that by intervening before the disease has spread and when the patient is usually healthier and the immune system may be more responsive, there is potential to prevent recurrence and to transform patients’ lives,” said Abdallah.

In their work, Abdallah and colleagues at Bristol Myers Squibb draw on a deep scientific expertise and understanding of the immune system While the company continues to investigate different approaches in treating metastatic disease, research into how immunotherapy may help patients live longer and with a higher quality of life in earlier stages across multiple cancers represents an important opportunity to help patients. 

“This movement to the earlier space can be so impactful. We are being bold, hoping for our patients to live longer,” he said. 

Passion driving science

Abdallah’s personal connection to cancer through his friend has fueled his already immense desire to contribute to innovative science. “At Bristol Myers Squibb, we transform patients’ lives through science, but what drives science in my perception is passion,” he said. “You can ask my team — we are obsessed with doing our best for patients.”

Abdallah believes immunotherapy shows promise in a number of different settings in earlier stages of cancer. For patients whose tumors can be removed, research is exploring the use of immunotherapy as a pre-surgery (neo-adjuvant) or post-surgery (adjuvant) therapy, as well as both before and after surgery (peri-operative).

Although Abdallah looks forward to many more years driving the advance of science, he evaluates his life with the big picture in mind. 

“I’ve thought a lot about what I want to do with my life. I’ve always said that on my 65th birthday, I have a plan to do a reflection about what I did with my life, and I want to make sure that on that day, I’m proud.”

His work in immunotherapy research, including earlier stages of cancer, is part of that plan to make a difference with his life, and his science. One day, he hopes that patients like his friend will have more options and more time. 

“My friend, if he could have been with his child longer, that would have been fantastic.”