In Memory of Dr. Gail Leichman
We have sad news to report this week. SWOG has lost one of its biggest leaders and most loyal investigators, Dr. Gail Leichman.
I will start by noting progress in cancer research has historically been largely incremental. While great leaps can and do occur, we have mostly improved cancer prevention and treatment bit by bit, trial by trial. The cumulative effect, for example in colon cancer, has been monumental.
The career of Dr. Leichman was proof we can make steady progress as cancer clinical trialists. Before her death, on October 20 in her home state of California, Dr. Leichman served SWOG for three decades. Along with her husband, Dr. Larry Leichman, Gail joined us in 1987 and quickly made her mark studying colorectal cancer.
Dr. Leichman served as SWOG gastrointestinal cancer committee vice-chair from 1993 to 2000, under Dr. Jack Macdonald. She served as study chair for four SWOG GI trials - S0713, S9051, S9420, and S9635 – and as co-chair for S8905. In this work, and in her research at Wayne State University, the University of Southern California, and New York University, she helped chart the natural history of colorectal cancer, and studied a variety of chemo- and chemoradiotherapy treatments, alone or in combination.
S8905 was particularly illuminating. This novel screening study enrolled 620 patients with colorectal cancer, and sought to determine which of seven different treatment regimens using fluorouracil (5-FU) was most effective. The result? No regimen provided substantial improvement to a single bolus of 5-FU when it came to treatment response or patient survival. The single-agent regimens demonstrated a favorable toxicity profile and a longer survival rate. S8905 didn’t identify a blockbuster drug – but it did answer a critical clinical question, and it improved care for patients. The Journal of Clinical Oncology paper releasing the results of S8905 has been cited nearly 400 times.
“As a scientist, Gail took what was available, built upon it, and made it better,” Macdonald recalled this week. “She was a very nice person, and a very smart person, and a very careful and gifted researcher. She was a great example of the clinician-scientist.”
Along with serving as a SWOG PI, Dr. Leichman was a wife, a mother of three, and a grandmother of six. She was a physician who cared for thousands of patients over a 40-year career, and a mentor to dozens of physicians specializing in cancer care and research. That latter group includes me. Dr. Leichman was so very helpful to me in my early career in SWOG and the GI committee. She really went out of her way for young investigators.
“Gail was a sharp and incisive thinker, calm and personable. She knew what she needed to do, and went about thoughtfully doing it, to create the best trials and make the biggest impact on patients,” Macdonald also said.
We are so lucky to have been graced with leaders like Dr. Leichman. My thoughts are with her family. To learn more about her, you can read her obituary. And to keep her research legacy alive, please consider a donation to the GI Cancer Research Program at New York University’s Perlman Comprehensive Cancer Center in care of Drs. Deirdre Cohen and Elliot Newman.