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Doctor’s own diagnosis drives quest for a cancer cure

NCI’s Dr. Christian Hinrichs (l) tells guests about his work, including a clinical trial of HPV-targeted tumor-infiltrating T cells for patients with HPV+ cancers, which has demonstrated that this treatment can mediate complete regression of cervical cancer in some patients. NIH Record Photo.

Colleagues describe Hinrichs as blunt, honest and direct, traits that may have been sharpened by his cancer ordeal.

“He told me on day one,” about his experience with cancer, said NCI researcher Lindsey Draper, who works in Hinrichs’ lab and is testing a next-generation T-cell therapy that arose from an earlier HPV trial.

“I think he wanted me to understand his sense of urgency in pushing this research forward.”

Hinrichs sometimes tells patients about his back story if they ask how he got into this field, or if he thinks it will help them somehow.

One of them, Aricca Wallace, who has been cancer-free since 2012, said he helps her manage her fear each time she goes for follow-up scans. She even has a word for it: “scanxiety.”

“He knows that I am on pins and needles and don’t sleep. So he will take a quick look and shoot me a thumbs up,” she said, describing their rapport as “more family than doctor-patient.”

For his part, Hinrichs decided to stop getting follow-up MRI and CT scans about five years after his eye was removed.

A long-time Presbyterian, he says his faith carries him through times of uncertainty.

When it comes to his particular cancer, “the statistics are really of limited value, anyway,” he added.

So he presses on, designing trials that are intended to cure advanced cancer with a single infusion of billions of super-charged T-cells that will take aim at tumors wherever they lie in the body.

Hinrichs thinks pursuing any other work would be unsatisfying.

“Cancer patients don’t want researchers to be focused on things that slow down the cancer or may have relatively minor effects,” he said.

“What they really want is for their cancers to go away.”

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