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    Dr. Mohamed Kharfan-Dabaja

    Breakthroughs don't happen unless you make them.

    Advancing breakthrough car-t cell therapy to fight blood cancer

    Mohamed A. Kharfan-Dabaja, M.D.

    Professor of Medicine, Vice Chair of Hematology and Director of Blood Marrow and Transplantation and Cellular Therapies

    Jacksonville, Florida

    The most difficult thing in life is when everything is predictable, it becomes perhaps boring. You need to have something that keeps challenging you while you're having that cup of tea in the evening. Sometimes what doesn't appear to be logical is what really gives you that great idea. I would say that very early in my medical years, I knew that this is what I wanted to do. The choice was more about where to do it than if to do it. There is nothing more rewarding than saving the life of a person. I can cure perhaps 50% of my patients who I couldn't before, but what about the other 50%? We need to keep going. We're not done yet.

    You must learn to fight against predictability.

    Be comfortable being uncomfortable. Few phrases better describe Dr. Mohamed Kharfan-Dabaja’s approach to his work. A true visionary in his field. A meticulous and driven innovator who has always pushed the boundaries of what’s possible. Embracing challenges that come and welcoming risks that arise. Believing that if something isn’t working well, or feels too familiar, it’s simply time to start thinking beyond it.

    "You must learn to fight against predictability," says Dr. Kharfan-Dabaja, Vice Chair of Hematology and Director of Blood Marrow and Transplantation and Cellular Therapies at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. "When everything is predictable, it becomes boring. So you need to have something that keeps challenging you. That while you're having a cup of tea in the evening, you think, what am I going to do? What am I going to study tomorrow? What am I going to focus on?"

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    Thriving outside his comfort zone has always come naturally to Dr. Kharfan-Dabaja. Born in Colombia to Lebanese parents, he was raised in Venezuela before moving to Beirut for college. Fluent in three languages, Spanish, English, and Arabic, he also has an MBA which he believes helps him to better understand the challenges in providing medical care from a different perspective, going deeper on demand, investment, and things like patient experience and preference.

    But, if you ask him of his proudest achievement of all, he’ll immediately tell you it’s being the father of five beautiful daughters.

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    Arriving at Mayo Clinic in 2017, he immediately began pushing for more. Bringing to life one of the most exciting and advanced therapies currently used to combat certain blood cancers, like leukemia, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma. Chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapy, often shortened to CAR-T therapy or CAR T-cell therapy, involves taking T-cells from the patient’s own body, modifying them to bind to and kill cancer cells, and then re-introducing them into the patient, where they can literally save the patient’s life. A treatment he believes has been and will continue to be game-changing if it can be increased in scale and accessibility.

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    "When I came here in 2017, there was no CAR T-cell therapy program," Dr. Kharfan-Dabaja says. Internal efforts to establish the program were underway, but they were expected to take many months or more. "In January of 2018, I said 'The initiation of the program will be May 1, 2018.' We were actually certified on May 2, so I apologized for the delay."

    With an eye always firmly set on the future, he looked to grow to meet the needs of the southeastern United States, realizing that the BMT program in Jacksonville could serve many more people. And in just four years, under his direction, it has completed 110 CAR-T therapy procedures and more than doubled its annual traditional bone marrow transplants.

    And still, Dr. Kharfan-Dabaja, believes they can do a whole lot more. By increasing access to advanced treatments for patients in the region who can’t travel long distances for care. And, because every cutting-edge treatment goes through a phase in which doctors refine approaches and address and reduce side effects where possible, they can increase the use of FDA-approved CAR-T therapy to help make these innovative treatments more effective.

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    The job is not done yet. And I think that we need to continue to improve on that. We need to continue to bring new therapies, need to understand not only why it is not working on a certain patient, but why is it that it works in others and that will bring new knowledge about how to improve this.”

    Even with more to be accomplished, he and his colleagues relentless work at Mayo Clinic in Florida has already earned international prestige. "Our visibility as a program transcended beyond Florida, beyond the southeast area of the United States," Dr. Kharfan-Dabaja says. "Now we are one of the go-to places for international patients. We have had patients from several countries, including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, India and Mexico."

    Never one to settle, Dr. Kharfan-Dabaja believes that continued innovation will make the patient care even better. This includes an ongoing pursuit to the improvement of CAR-T therapy itself by participating in clinical trials with recruited scientists to help solve some of the remaining challenges around CAR-T therapy.

    He is especially excited about ongoing research happening at Mayo Clinic into post-transplant care at home. "We are among the very few clinics in the country that have been able to move the care after bone marrow transplantation to the patient's home," he says. "We did bone marrow transplants for patients who had their chemotherapy and infusion of stem cells in the hospital, and then they were sent home and all the monitoring happened virtually. They never had to sleep a single night in the hospital after they were discharged."

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    There’s nothing more rewarding than making that difference in the life of someone.

    The journey to making more possible for more patients has always been the purpose for Dr. Kharfan-Dabaja. But, the results of his work are something he never takes for granted.

    "I don't do it because I just want to go from point A to point B, I do it because I enjoy doing what I do. I think that there is nothing more rewarding than saving the life of a person. I can tell you countless stories of patients who were really considered cases where nothing else could be done," Dr. Kharfan-Dabaja says.

    "And these patients eventually went on to live, to enjoy very important moments in their life, like graduations of their children. The birth of a grandchild. The wedding of a granddaughter. There’s nothing more rewarding than making that difference in the life of someone."

    Dr. Mohamed Kharfan-Dabaja

    Dr. Mohamed Kharfan-Dabaja, is a hematologist and oncologist in the Blood and Marrow Transplant, and Cellular Therapy programs at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. He joined Mayo Clinic in 2017 and holds the academic rank of Professor of Medicine, Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science. Dr. Kharfan-Dabaja is leading a groundbreaking program and research that focuses on chimeric antigen receptor therapy (CAR-T cell therapy) for patients with large B cell lymphoma and other malignancies.

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    CAR-T Therapy Program

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    CAR-T cell therapy for lymphoma and other blood cancers at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida.

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