Andrew L. Pecora, MD, FACP, CPE
President Physicians Services Division and Chief Innovations Officer, John Theurer Cancer Center at Hackensack University Medical Center
Founding President of Regional Cancer Care Associates
Giants do walk among us. Dr. Andrew L. Pecora, who performed the first bone marrow transplant in the state of New Jersey in 1990, and recently celebrated the 6,000th bone marrow transplant, is just such a giant—and this year’s winner of PM360’s Uber ELITE Award. A self-admitted science geek with a passion to help people since about the age of eight, he is now a certified hematologist/oncologist internationally recognized as one of the world’s foremost experts in blood and marrow stem cell transplantation, cellular medicine, and immunology.
Among Dr. Pecora’s many accomplishments working in oncology during the past 30 years, two more distinct breakthroughs include the founding of the John Theurer Cancer Center at New Jersey’s Hackensack University Medical Center, one of the largest, multi-disciplinary, comprehensive cancer care centers in the world; and the founding of the company and the technology called COTA, Clinical Outcomes Tracking Analysis, which through a smarter use of data, more precisely classifies illness, reducing unnecessary spend in oncology while improving patient outcomes through more targeted therapies.
COTA is being considered in its inspiration of Vice President Joe’s Biden’s “moonshot” cancer initiative. It also brought Dr. Pecora to the recent Vatican gathering at which the brightest minds in the world convened to discuss cutting edge advances in medicine and the collaboration necessary to finally cure cancer. In an exclusive interview with PM360, Dr. Pecora discussed the work he is doing to eradicate this disease.
PM360: Dr. Pecora, your technology platform, COTA, caught the attention of both the White House and the Vatican. Can you tell us about COTA and how it advances cancer treatment?
Dr. Pecora: Right now precision medicine allows you to learn everything you possibly can about an individual’s disease down to the genomic level so that you can treat it the most precisely. But precision medicine alone is not enough. You also need precision analytics that allow you to characterize everything that’s relevant before any treatment is given. For example, you’re a woman. You went to college. You have a family history. You’re a certain socioeconomic status. You have certain behaviors. You eat a lot of ice cream. You don’t exercise.
Well, that’s all relevant. My idea was to take the biologic narrative—the disease, the genomic alterations, the size of the tumor, how fast it’s growing, the biomarkers—and all that gives you everything you need to know about the person. But you can’t put that together with words.
So I turned that information into numbers. We digitized the biologic narrative so we can compress the information and then we were able to look at these numbers. So if a patient comes up as a particular number, you are able to tell which treatment—A versus treatment B versus treatment C—is best for that person. When another person comes in with that number, a doctor can say, “Don’t take B or C because A is better for you.” Using COTA, we showed that we could increase clinical outcomes—and save a lot of money.
That’s an incredible breakthrough. As well, you designed and created the John Theurer Cancer Center four years ago, encouraging collaboration among doctors to focus on a cure. Can you tell us about that?
I previously worked with the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, but in 1989, I came home to New Jersey, and to the Hackensack University Medical Center. I wanted to create a bone marrow transplant program because none existed in the state. So I organized the doctors at Hackensack into one group. I said, “Let’s not compete with one another. Let’s compete against cancer. Let’s all come together.” And they did.
We became a unit and started attracting some of the best and brightest doctors. We created a force by allowing doctors to focus on individual diseases—so patients wouldn’t see a doctor who treated everything, but if they had lung cancer, they would see someone who specialized only in lung cancer. If they had leukemia, they saw someone who specialized only in leukemia, and so on. We grew very fast because the need was so great. Now we have amazing individuals who are just as passionate as I am about finding a cure for cancer in the areas in which they do their research.
In terms of cancer care, you also place great emphasis on the care of the individual, not just the treatment. Can you talk about that?
Oh, absolutely. Your job as a doctor is to help patients feel less alone and give them hope. So we go one step deeper. The patient’s state of mind affects their immune system. Since the immune system is a big part of cancer control—which is one of the things that fascinated me and drew me to oncology initially—it’s important the patient has a good state of mind so the immune system stays at its healthiest to fight the cancer.
So we don’t treat the cancer. We treat the person. That’s fundamentally different. Not only do we have the cancer medicines that can treat their cancers, but also we have a cooking studio so people can learn how to change their lifestyle. We have a patient library where librarians help patients find information about their illness. We have a yoga studio, dieticians, a support staff, patient counseling, and patient meetings. Patients become part of a community of wellness that helps them get back on track to health.
What motivated you to take this extraordinary path?
The passion to help people. As a young person, I saw a lot of people cut down in the prime of their lives because of this disease. And it gets you mad. You want to do something about it.
So when do you think we will see a cure?
We’ll never hit a 100% cure rate, but I think within 25 years we’ll see 90%. We’ll think about cancer no differently than we think about polio. Most people won’t get cancer since we’re going to be able to vaccinate against any cancer. That is what we are working on now.
What do you think has been your greatest accomplishment, Dr. Pecora? Or, do you see that as something still to come?
I never thought about it that way before, so I’ll answer it this way: I’m far from done. But my professional life’s journey has been incredibly rewarding because I’ve been able to help a lot of people one at a time as a doctor. I’ve also been able to help a lot of people all at once as a scientist and a researcher through my discoveries. So, I’m very fulfilled that way. But I’m not done yet.