Q&A with Cancer Researcher and Physician Dr. C. Ola Landgren

The Sylvester Myeloma Research Institute director is creating a nationally respected program by using a family approach to program building.

Dr. C. Ola Landgren with attendees beneath the We Light the Night banner

C. Ola Landgren, M.D., Ph.D., grew up in a large family surrounded by relatives, with roots reaching back to the 1640s in Lund, Sweden.

The lessons he learned there infuse Dr. Landgren’s leadership style as director of the Sylvester Myeloma Research Institute, a program he launched at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, part of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

“When I build programs, I always think you will have a better, long-term, sustainable outcome and more fun if you build together as a family,” said Dr. Landgren, an expert on multiple myeloma, the second most common blood cancer. Almost 200,000 Americans are living with multiple myeloma.

Prior to joining Sylvester in November 2020, Dr. Landgren built multiple myeloma programs at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. He is now making fast progress on his goal of building a “top three” U.S. myeloma program within five years of inception at Sylvester.

Dr. Landgren’s research also recently led to a ruling by an FDA committee favoring a key biomarker, minimal residual disease (MRD), as a new clinical trial endpoint for accelerated approval for multiple myeloma. When adopted, the new endpoint will cut an estimated 10 years off of drug development timelines, said Dr. Landgren, who is also co-leader of Sylvester’s Translational and Clinical Oncology program, chief of the Division of Myeloma at the Miller School and the Paul J. DiMare Endowed Chair in Immunotherapy.

Dr. C. Ola Landgren with attendees beneath the We Light the Night banner
Dr. Landgren (center, in orange polo shirt) at the We Light the Night cancer event.

We recently chatted with Dr. Landgren to talk about the state of myeloma treatment and research and how he is building capacity at Sylvester. Below are highlights from our interview, lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

What changes have you seen in multiple myeloma treatments over the years?

We have seen so many successful drugs approved by the FDA and now we are looking at MRD as an early endpoint for accelerated approval. Even the FDA last month said that myeloma is again at the forefront. For patients, we are past the tipping point. Thanks to all the advances in drug development, multiple myeloma has shifted from being a very dismal disease for the majority of patients to a disease where many patients may have the same lifespan as a person of the same age without the disease.

Tell us more about what brought you to Sylvester from Memorial Sloan Kettering.

At the time I felt at home in New York City, where I had lived for seven years. It has a European vibe and I like the high pace and the energy. But I was also at the point in my career where I could use my experience and all the contacts and networks I have built to help establish a new multiple myeloma program in a city with a large medical need. I also moved down to Miami to help establish the translational and clinical oncology/experimental therapeutics program.

What were some of the ways you built the multiple myeloma program at Sylvester?

We built up a large lab and clinical trials program, as well as outpatient programs focused on myeloma and training opportunities for fellows. We are just about to launch a new inpatient program dedicated to multiple myeloma. We have grown from three employees to 70 and now have about 7,000 multiple myeloma outpatient visits annually, up from around 1,000. We have also been very successful with grants and donations.

In addition to all the excellent patient care, which is, of course, the number one thing, we are also pushing the envelope in terms of science, which is close to my heart. We keep on publishing in high-impact journals and we are invited to give talks at key meetings and conferences worldwide. It is all about teamwork. We have a strong myeloma family here at Sylvester.

What does it mean, in practice, to have a family-oriented leadership style?

Every day, my main focus areas are to help patients and to help our faculty. I meet with faculty and leaders within our myeloma program every one to four weeks, depending on their needs. Every three months, we have team-building activities that include the entire program. We work hard and we play hard. By building a strong core of clinical, research and professional support people, we function as a very strong family. We are dedicated, focused and we help each other. Together, we create new ideas and we generate lots of energy.

What are some of the key scientific questions your team is addressing?

I would like to develop a curative treatment for multiple myeloma. That is a big task, but I think we are at the point where it’s possible. There are many new immunotherapies that we have been a part of developing for many years.

We have over 20 clinical trials here and new tools to dissect the disease and the host immune system. We have discovered mechanisms of patient responses and relapses. We are examining how the immune system and tumor cells play together and we have launched novel MRD approaches. Also, we are developing multiple, investigator-initiated studies covering both clinical and scientific angles.

What still needs to be done to build up research in your field at Sylvester?

We will continue to build up the computational oncology lab that I established, the translational science wet labs where we are setting up a lot of blood-based assays for MRD tracking, and we are in the process of developing a new functional wet lab which will link our existing labs closer to the clinical trials program we are running. We will continue to develop all the aspects that you need to build and sustain a comprehensive, discovery-driven, translational, patient-focused research program in multiple myeloma.

What made you decide to become a doctor and a scientist?

It sort of covered all the bases of my interests. I’m a curious person. I like science and I also enjoy human interaction very much. I also have an engineering side. I believe that every problem has a solution. I enjoy rationally thinking about how to solve problems.

Dr. Landgren was drawn to medicine because it appeals to his curiosity and invites him to interact with patients in a meaningful way.

Medicine allows me to deliver rational findings and solutions in a humanistic way by providing good clinical care and by listening to the patient. I really enjoy that and I feel blessed to be a doctor.

What do you do outside of work for fun?

I very much enjoy spending time with family and friends. My wife and I cook together a few nights per week and we also enjoy traveling together and exploring new places and cities. We always look for new restaurants and we enjoy exploring food. We love learning about people, traditions and various other things when we travel. Overall, we are very active.

I also enjoy listening to music and playing the guitar. I have played since I was in the third grade. Over the years, I have been to many concerts. In particular, I like the smaller venues in New York City. For example, several times I have listened to Mike Stern (Miles Davies’ former guitar player) and his band at the prohibition-era dive bar, 55Bar, on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village—amazing jazz musicians and really cool atmosphere!

You earned your M.D. and Ph.D. at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. Do you keep those connections alive?

I’ve been back to Sweden many times in the last year, as well as Finland and Denmark. I visit Sweden every year. I want to bring back knowledge we generate in the U.S. back there but also take it the other way. To make new advances and to improve things, it is all about teamwork. I work closely with people around the world. There is some competition, which is good, but there is a lot of collaboration.

How do you see multiple myeloma treatment developing in the future?

Developing these curative approaches is a main goal of mine. Also, we need to be better at tailoring treatment strategies for individual patients. We need to develop precision medicine to avoid overtreatment and unnecessary side effects, to optimize quality of life. There’s still a lot of work to be done.

Tags: Dr. C. Ola Landgren, multiple myeloma, Myeloma Research Institute, Sylverster Comprehensive Cancer Center