1. Neff Newitt, Valerie

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Georgia Marie Beasley, MD, MHSc, made a remarkable full-court run from professional basketball player to medical researcher, surgical oncologist, Assistant Professor of Surgery, and Co-Director of the Melanoma Program at Duke University.

Georgia Marie Beasle... - Click to enlarge in new windowGeorgia Marie Beasley, MD, MHSc. Particularly interested in intratumoral therapies such as oncolytic viruses used to treat skin cancers, Georgia Marie Beasley, MD, MHSc, explores how the immune system interacts with tumors in hopes of harnessing patients' immune systems to fight their individual cancers.

"My main areas of interest are melanoma and other cutaneous malignancies," Beasley noted. "I have an active clinical practice as a surgeon and spend a lot of time doing translational and basic research." Particularly interested in intratumoral therapies such as oncolytic viruses used to treat skin cancers, she also explores how the immune system interacts with tumors in hopes of harnessing patients' immune systems to fight their individual cancers.


Originally from Columbus, Ohio, the physician scientist is married and has two children. In her own early youth, she tagged along with her father as he coached her two older brothers in basketball.


"I just really loved it. We have a funny story in the family.... When my dad was running practice for my brothers, who were in middle school, I'd be there watching and wanting to play, bouncing a ball, and annoying my dad and brothers. Dad would always turn to me and say, 'Hold the ball, hold the ball, hold the ball!' Finally his assistant told my dad, 'I think you're wasting your time with the boys.... SHE's the one who wants to play!' So I got into basketball and loved everything about it."


When her athletic interest took root in high school Beasley's height was a mere 5 feet 4 inches. But at 16, over the course of a single year, Beasley shot up 6 inches. As a 6-foot player with deep skills, she earned attention from various colleges and universities and was recruited by Duke. Though she could have gone elsewhere, to a school with a more developed women's basketball program, she had already determined that medicine, not basketball, would be her eventual path, and she was enamored of Duke's medical school.


"I really thought, 'What a great place to get my foot in the door for medicine and play ball. The team was good, the coach was really great, and I sensed the trajectory of a great program. Although it was a good program, I never expected to be a part of redefining the standard for the Duke women's basketball program. I was a part of the team that was the school's first final four, first NCAA runner-up, first regular season and tournament conference championships. I was conference player of the year twice and an All-American; our coach is now in the Hall of Fame. Honestly, I didn't expect any of that to happen. Being a part of building the success was really special."


A Three-Year Detour

"I have women in my family who are nurses-mom, my sister. And my dad had lymphoma when I was young. I always thought of the doctor who took care of him as being my hero. So I knew I wanted to be a doctor," said Beasley. "I randomly saw a physician who was picking up his daughter from our basketball camp in the summer and I noticed he had a pager. I just said to him, 'Hey, are you a doctor here?' He said, 'Yes.' And I said, 'I'm trying to get to med school, and I'd really like the opportunity to shadow you.' That person, neuro-oncologist Henry Friedman, MD, continued to help me. I took the MCAT my senior year of college, and I was ready to go to medical school."


But athletic success delayed her path to medicine. "My coach told me, 'You're going to get drafted. You may want to think about playing professionally because most people don't ever get that opportunity,'" recalled Beasley. "She was right, and so I just deferred and ended up playing 3 years with the Minnesota Lynx. It was a lot of fun, and I learned a lot. But I stayed focused on attending medical school; after those 3 years, I was definitely ready to return. And that was the best decision I ever made. I was meant to do what I'm doing now. Sure, I enjoyed sports, but [being in medicine] is very meaningful. I love being a surgeon and doing what I do. Plus, I find it fascinating to do investigative work and think about disease and processes and all related things. Instead of doing the same surgeries or using the same therapies and getting the same results, I want to be a part of continued advancements."


Beasley said there are some correlations between the disciplines found in sports and medicine. "There is strategy involved," she began, "and numerous required skills in both. I've thought about this a lot and it's interesting: Every corporation or health system is trying to emulate athletic teamwork. Yet, it's really difficult to do outside of sports. On a basketball team, for example, you have to understand your role. Whether you are the star player or on the bench, you are still an important part of the team. You compete with each other for playing time, but you all have the same common goal-to win games. My own favorite thing was not to score the points, it was to set somebody else up perfectly to score. I believe the role of a leader is to elevate those around her; doing so builds success."


Teamwork is essential in a medical setting because "...we all have one common goal and that is patient care," she said. "I try to recreate that feeling of teamwork. It's hard, but I try. Being in an academic center, I do a lot of mentoring with residents. I've had my share of success and now it's my turn to help elevate others and get them started."


Translational Research

Following medical school at Duke, and a surgical oncology fellowship at Ohio State University, Beasley returned to Duke to practice, join the faculty, and undertake impressive research efforts.


"Like most researchers, I have several projects," she noted, "with the overarching theme being novel therapeutics for melanoma. One of the things I'm particularly interested in is injectable agents, which can be oncolytic viruses or other immune agonists that are injected directly into tumors to try to reset tumor killing and immune response. As a surgeon, especially in melanoma where a lot of these things are cutaneous lesions, I can access and biopsy the tumor before we inject the novel agents, and then potentially do another biopsy afterward to see the effects."


There are many of these agents being tested, and Beasley has had the opportunity to lead some of Duke's trials as well as some of the larger industry-sponsored ones. "As a program, we always try to have several open trials for when patients fail other standard-of-care therapies," she noted.


In her lab, Beasley uses tumor biopsies to see the impact that an injectable virus may have, or learn other things about how the immune system is interacting with a specific tumor. "One of the things I'd like to say is that while using cell lines and animals are all important, human oncology is extremely complex. And really the best way that we can study it is by using tumors from humans. As a surgeon, I remove tumors and physically have them in hand; these specimens are crucial for translational research. For example, most recently we examined immune activation status tumor draining lymph nodes from patients who had lymph nodes removed. Depending on the characteristics of the lymph nodes, we could tell which patients were going to potentially have a bad outcome and which ones might have a good outcome. So we try to use the human tissue to understand things about the tumor and the interaction with the immune system. What we can learn from studying human tumors and human immune responses to tumors is not something that can be learned from animal models or studies of cancer cells in a dish."


While her work may take years to transition to daily clinical utility, it has already served an important purpose. "On a smaller scale, it has given us many ideas to try to translate," said Beasley, "so we have several things that are being tested in clinical trials."


As she looks toward the future, the surgical oncologist has goals she hopes to obtain. "Particularly in melanoma, we have had a lot of groundbreaking therapy, like immune therapy, but only about 40 percent of patients respond to this. I really hope, with a lot of that work we are doing, we can continue to move that needle further and help many more patients receive treatments that work. We've come a really far way, but we still have a long way to go. In the short-term, we have several trials open and are hopeful that new treatment approaches will be more effective."


Beasley continued, "A lot of things are exciting early on, but after they've played out, you start realizing that some of these very specific therapies work for a few patients, but not all patients. So as we move to the future, what I really see is much more individualized care. There is likely not one standard treatment that should be given to all patients. The goal is to study the patient's tumor and immune characteristics and use that information to develop an individualized treatment plan that maximizes therapeutic effect. We're getting there slowly but surely."


And in the long-term, Beasley said she personally wants " continue to mentor the next generation and build up people that are coming behind me. It's great being in a position to help a patient. But I think for me, the greatest thing is the impact I can leave behind on others to take up the causes and carry them forward. So I want all the smartest medical students and residents to come do what I do, because I want their minds working on these projects."


Valerie Neff Newitt is a contributing writer.


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