AURORA | Andrew Weickhardt had to adjust to the size of the University of Colorado Cancer Center when he arrived in Aurora two years ago.
Weickhardt had crossed the globe to report for his duties as a senior clinical fellow at the CU Cancer Center. Though he’d gotten plenty of positive feedback about living in the area from friends and family, it was hard to get a sense of the size of the specialized facility on the Anschutz Medical Campus. In terms of funding, personnel and simple square footage, it was hard to find a parallel in his native Australia.
“The center here is, in general, about 50 percent bigger than the largest cancer center back in Melbourne. It benefits from greater funding and research,” Weickhardt said. “In some areas, like lung cancer, it’s a recognized world leader … That makes a difference. You get clinical trials of drugs before anyone else.”
The prestige and scope of the center didn’t stop Weickhardt from finding his niche at facility. In the past two years, Weickhardt has worked with physicians like Ross Camidge and Robert Doebele in cutting-edge research, studies that point to new treatments of lung cancer. His work has included new research regarding crizotinib, a lung cancer oral medication approved by the FDA in 2011. He’s traveled with the Cancer Center team to conferences in Amsterdam and Chicago.
“It’s been investigating ways of using targeted therapy in lung cancer, to try to prolong a patient’s life and reduce symptoms,” Weickhardt said. “It’s been a great opportunity from that perspective, because I’ve been involved in clinical trials of new drugs … We’ve also been fortunate to work on new ways to try to extend the benefit of those targeted drugs by combining the treatments with radiotherapy.”
In addition to potential benefits of new medications, Weickhardt has explored possible side effects. Specifically, research from the past two years has spelled out the connection between crizotinib and hormone levels in male patients. Crizotinib, which showed dramatic benefits for patients with ALK positive lung cancer, has also been linked to low testosterone levels, a side effect responsible for fatigue and reduced libido.
“This is something that you can only observe if you have a large group of patients all treated with the same type of treatment,” Weickhardt said. “Around the world, there aren’t many centers that would have the number of patients to identify the pattern. I think that’s what a specialty center like this is fantastic for … You can pick patterns in terms of outcomes.”
As he enters the final days of his fellowship in Aurora and prepares to return to Melbourne, Weickhardt insists that it’s impossible to overestimate the value of his work CU Cancer Center. Weickhardt, who came to Colorado with his wife and his two children, said he’ll be able to draw on the personal connections and clinical research in his future work in Australia.
“While I’ve been here, I’ve managed to set up research from my old laboratory in conjunction with the research laboratory here. That’s an ongoing project,” Weickhardt said. “We’re investigating some molecular changes in colon cancer. That’s a collaboration that’s brought together two institutes that previously didn’t work together.”
Those connections will serve his future work well, Weickhardt said, but there will be plenty about Colorado to miss, and not just from a clinical standpoint.
From his first days in Colorado catching a city bus on East Colfax Avenue to his final weeks saying goodbyes and putting the last stamps on his clinical work, Weickhardt has plenty to take away from the experience. He’s climbed mountains and skied at the state’s top resorts. His youngest child, aged 3, has even picked up an American accent.
“As soon as I arrived I was able to participate in patient care and look after patients in the clinic. I was able to work alongside Dr. Camidge and Dr. Doebele,” Weickhardt said. “I had been to Colorado once before and skied at Steamboat, but I flew in and out of the airport. I had a few family friends who had been to Denver … They were gushing with enthusiasm.
“After two years, I feel like I’m that person now,” he added.
Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at [email protected] or 720-449-9707