Q&A with Dr. Kelvin Lee

Q&A with Dr. Kelvin Lee

Lee-web-horizontal.jpgFebruary 01, 2021

Kelvin Lee, M.D., a world-recognized medical oncologist and multiple myeloma researcher, assumed duties as director of the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center on Feb. 1. He and his wife, Louise, have relocated to Indy’s northeast side in Fortville. He pointed out that their new home is near the IKEA store, which is where they have already completed many shopping trips. They re-located from Buffalo, N.Y., where he was most recently a physician scientist and led the immunology efforts at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. Louise, a research scientist, will run his lab here. Their daughter, Kristen, is a freshman at Butler University, and their son, Justin, is a senior at Northeastern University.

Dr. Lee, the third director of the cancer center since its founding in 1992, answered some questions about his new role, what brought him here, and more.

Q: What attracted you to IU and the IU Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center?

A: It was the great people and talent at IU in general, and at the IU Simon Comprehensive Cancer in particular. Plus, the commitment and engagement of senior leadership at IU School of Medicine and IU Health to continue to build a world-class cancer research + education + care effort. And finally, the bold aspiration at IU to cure cancer — something in fact IU has a great tradition in doing.

Q: You’ve started a new job and moved during a pandemic. What were some of the unique challenges you faced during the interview process as well as starting the job and finding a home that were brought on by the pandemic?

A: I think all of us have struggled with the narrow perspective that one gets through a cell phone or computer camera – it’s like trying to look at a landscape through a straw. And since you can’t actually be there in person, there are things you simply have to do on faith and lean on the great team in Indy that made everything happen remotely.

Q: What led you into cancer care and research?

A: My career in medicine was started by a complete accident. I was going to be a marine biologist in high school, but in the summer of my junior year, I had a wonderful laboratory experience with Dr. Elliott Perlin at the National Naval Medical Center in immunology research. So, I decided to apply to the combined undergraduate-medical program (Inteflex) at the University of Michigan. Through a clerical error, even though I was rejected by the admissions committee, I received a letter to interview in person and managed to get accepted into Inteflex, which started my medical career.

I went into cancer care and research because of the wonderful patients I took care of in medical school. They and their families were extraordinarily brave, generous in spirit, and hopeful despite sometimes overwhelming odds. And I remember thinking, “Why aren’t we doing better for these patients?” I believe that research cures cancer, which is why I am in research.

I believe that research cures cancer, which is why I am in research.

Dr. Lee

Q: What does your multiple myeloma research focus on specifically?

A: My lab is studying what keeps myeloma cells alive and how those mechanisms allow myeloma cells to resist being killed by chemotherapy. Multiple myeloma that becomes more and more resistant to treatment is the main reason why patients with myeloma eventually succumb to their cancer. If we can figure out how to disrupt these resistance mechanisms with new and novel therapies, that would go a long way towards curing this cancer.

Q: Will anyone from your lab at Roswell Park be coming here? If so, when do they arrive?

A: Yes, the lab is moving in July from Roswell. We figured that a big move in the middle of a pandemic was probably not a good idea.

Q: In addition to serving as the cancer center director and continuing your research, will you see patients at IU Health?

A: Yes. Definitely. I believe our patients remind us most clearly why we are doing the things we are doing in cancer research. I will be seeing myeloma patients, probably starting this summer.

Q: Your roots are in the Midwest. You were born in Urbana, Ill., and you completed your undergrad and graduate education at the University of Michigan. Is this a homecoming of sorts for you?

A: Well, I have certainly been re-introduced to the passion of Big Ten rivalries!

Q: What is the most important thing you’d like cancer center researchers and staff to know about you?

A: I truly believe that research cures cancer.

Q: Other than putting together stuff from IKEA, what has a typical weekend been like for you since arriving here?

A: Before the recent warm-up, mostly shoveling snow! The snowblower is still in Buffalo!


Q: Finally, what’s up with the SpongeBob SquarePants that are beginning to appear in your office?

A: They came with me from Buffalo. My faculty, students, and staff started collecting them for me when I first moved to Roswell. (Justin was quite the fan when he was younger. His dad still is.) Over the 14 years I was at Roswell, I amassed quite a collection in my office. Most of it found new homes when I moved to IU, but a brave expeditionary band came with me to Indy.

Kelvin Lee, M.D.
Associate Dean of Cancer Research
Director, IU Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center
H.H. Gregg Professor of Oncology
Professor of Medicine
Professor of Microbiology & Immunology
IU School of Medicine
Office: Walther Hall, Suite 132


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