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Q&A with Mikkael Sekeres, M.D., M.S.

Sylvester oncologist is motivated by the story of health and disease.

Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center researcher Mikkael Sekeres

Growing up, Mikkael Sekeres, M.D., M.S., was torn between a career as a doctor or as an English professor.

Ultimately, medicine won out for Dr. Sekeres, chief of the Division of Hematology at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, part of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. But as the son of two English majors with a strong love of writing himself — he wrote a column for the New York Times for several years, and has authored many books — Dr. Sekeres says his “liberal arts brain” helps shape how he treats his patients with leukemia and myelodysplastic syndromes, both cancers of the bone marrow.

We caught up with Dr. Sekeres to find out more about his work at Sylvester and what motivates him. His answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Can you tell me a bit about yourself and the work you do at Sylvester?

I specialize in treating older adults with leukemia and myelodysplastic syndromes. I have a background in internal medicine, hematology and oncology, and in epidemiology.

I really think about my research from the standpoint of a patient. What is their experience? How do they make decisions about their cancer treatment? What makes their cancer more or less treatable? I’ve been the primary investigator of dozens of clinical trials testing treatments in myelodysplastic syndromes and acute leukemias and I have also done research in the genetics of cancer, epidemiology, quality of life and outcomes.

Finally, I’m involved in regulatory work. I was on the oncologic drugs advisory committee of the FDA for five years and I chaired it for two.

You came to Sylvester in 2021 from the Cleveland Clinic. What brought you here?

Sylvester is an incredible place. It’s growing to serve the needs of the population of South Florida, a very diverse population who come from all over the world. I was really attracted here by the growth of the center, by the population of patients we serve, by the incredible science we conduct here and by the cutting-edge clinical trials. I look at it as a personal failure if a patient walks into my clinic and has run out of traditional treatment options and I don’t have a clinical trial I can offer them.

How did you decide to go into medicine?

I was probably in middle school when I decided but for a good portion of my life it was a coin toss over whether I wanted to be a doctor or an English professor. Both my parents were English majors and my dad was a journalist. Going into English was always my backup plan, which fortunately I didn’t have to tap into! But even as a doctor, my focus has really always been on the story of medicine — the story of health and the story of disease. I like to write that story with my patients: the story about their diagnosis, how we’re going to treat it and how we’re eventually going to cure it.

With research, it’s similar. There’s a story of how we think science works, and the fun part of doing research is seeing what fits that story and what doesn’t, and when it doesn’t fit that often causes us to rewrite the story.

I look at it as a personal failure if a patient walks into my clinic and has run out of traditional treatment options and I don’t have a clinical trial I can offer them.
– Dr. Mikkael Sekeres

How have you seen your area of oncology change during your career?

Over the past two decades, we’ve had a revolution in how we define and treat cancer. The beginning of my career was really the dawn of thinking about genetics and cancer. As we’re able to identify the very specific mutations that lead to cancer, that’s opened doors for us to develop drugs to treat the cancer.

I’ve been privileged to be an investigator on a few trials that have led to the approval of new drugs for leukemia. Last year, I was an investigator on a trial of the drug quizartinib to treat patients with acute myeloid leukemia that carry mutations in the gene FLT3, and that was approved last year. I’ve also been an author on trials looking at IDH inhibitors for acute myeloid leukemia. These are all game changers for leukemia treatment.

What motivates you in your work?

My patients. It was really always the patients that drew me to this specialty. I feel like the luckiest doctor in the world to be able to work with the patients I get to see every day. It’s a privilege to be invited into their lives, even as an unwelcome visitor. They’re my touchpoint and my North Star. It’s their experience that motivates me to practice medicine better, to understand their experiences and ultimately to conduct the research that will improve their lives.

Tags: Dr. Mikkael Sekeres, Leukemia, myelodysplastic syndrome, Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center