Published: June 2021
We are happy to introduce Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Spotlight Series. Each month we will feature one of our dedicated physicians, scientists, nurses, and other important staff members so you can get to know the talented multi-disciplinary team serving our community.
Meet Jaime Merchan, M.D., director of Sylvester’s Phase 1 Clinical Trials Program, and associate professor at the Miller School of Medicine. With over 29 years of expertise in genitourinary cancers, Dr. Merchan is a dedicated physician scientist whose drive and passion in the field has led to improved survival for patients in South Florida, and beyond.
Why did you decide to come to Sylvester?
Coming to Sylvester was like coming back home. I started my professional medical career at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine Internal Medicine Program. I learned how to be a skilled physician and developed my passion for oncology. After finishing my hematology-oncology fellowship at Harvard Medical School and specialized training in translational research/drug development at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I moved to Mayo Clinic in Rochester as a junior faculty member, where I developed skills as a translational researcher in tumor angiogenesis, renal cell carcinoma and oncolytic virotherapy. When I was invited to come to Sylvester for a seminar, I saw the institution's great potential and felt that I could contribute by bringing my expertise in early therapeutics research and genitourinary malignancies, especially renal cell carcinoma. The environment was welcoming and the support by Sylvester leadership has been incredible from day one. I have seen Sylvester grow on a national level and feel enthusiastic to help us reach even greater heights.
What do you enjoy most about your role at Sylvester?
I am currently the director of the Phase 1 Clinical Trials Program at Sylvester. Our goals are to bring hope to patients by providing the newest and most promising therapies to those who would not have options elsewhere. Just four to five years ago, Phase 1 cancer trials did not offer much benefit to patients, but the trials we currently offer provide real hope to help patients continue their fight against cancer. As a physician-scientist myself, I enjoy helping to develop new treatments and taking them from the laboratory to the patient. I enjoy the collaborative nature of my job, working together with a team of doctors, researchers, nurses, and other staff to offer these potentially life-saving programs. We are truly joining forces to find cures for cancer.
Why did you choose your specific area of interest?
As a physician-scientist who also does laboratory research, my goals are to discover and develop new cures for kidney and other cancers, using new treatment combinations between oncolytic viruses (viruses designed to selectively attack cancer and not normal cells) and targeted immunotherapies. Oncolytic viruses are new, promising treatments for cancer. In the last five years there has been a significant growth in the field due to the promising anti-tumor activity of viruses, as well as the different and unique mechanisms by which viruses kill cancer cells. I chose this area because I strongly believe viruses, which are effective at infecting cells and tissues, can be re-designed to specifically attack cancer. Nature has proven that viruses are effective at infecting and causing damage to cells. By re-engineering or "training" viruses to only kill tumor cells, we could potentially achieve excellent results and possible cures in the future. I enjoy working towards moving oncolytic viruses to the clinic and making these novel treatments available to our patients.
What developments are you most excited about?
In my field of research, I am most excited about the great progress that we and others have made in moving oncolytic viruses to the clinic. At Sylvester, we have an increasing number of oncolytic virus platforms, some of which were developed at UM, and we have seen early evidence of great efficacy in some of our patients who have received these novel treatments. My research is currently exploring new ways to make oncolytic viruses more effective by using laboratory preclinical models of cancer to investigate new combinations of treatment therapies. Finding new combinations to overcome resistance in tumors will greatly help the field of cancer research bring better outcomes to patients. An important observation is that oncolytic viruses are active against many types of cancers. Therefore, new treatment combinations using viruses has great potential towards cures.
How does philanthropy make a difference?
Philanthropy makes a significant difference in several ways. It helps jumpstart new, high-risk, high-reward projects, which normally would not be funded by federal agencies. The reason for this is because most federal grants require extensive initial or preliminary data. Without this crucial initial funding, potential breakthrough ideas would never be investigated, and new treatments would not be discovered. Philanthropy is also essential to build infrastructure to improve and enhance research laboratories and clinical research facilities, which are usually not funded by federal agencies. Having better infrastructure for laboratory and clinical research benefits both patients and researchers, by providing state-of-the-art spaces with new equipment essential to our mission. Having these facilities will also attract new talent to the institution.