BY STEPHANIE STEMMLER ILLUSTRATIONS BY JOHN DIPERSIO, MD, PHD | PHOTOS BY GREGG GOLDMAN
John DiPersio, MD, PhD, is deputy director of the Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine, and chief of the School of Medicine’s Division of Oncology. Beloved by patients, DiPersio is a highly regarded oncologist and researcher, who also is known for his interest in making art. He and his colleagues have been at the forefront of breakthroughs in cancer research, developing new drugs that have moved from the laboratory to patient care. He has led efforts to create personalized cancer immunotherapies that trigger a person’s own immune system to fight a specific type of cancer. Recently, Curiosus writer Stephanie Stemmler visited with DiPersio to talk about his research and his art.
Watch John DiPersio, MD, PhD, for an extended period of time and chances are you’ll catch him drawing—on blank paper, an envelope, the résumé of a doctor he’s interviewing or a program for an international oncology conference. But these bits of creative expression are not signs of distraction or symptoms of boredom; rather, they are signs the drawer is listening intently for new insights or opening his mind to new ideas.
DiPersio’s doodles, as he calls them, are wildly creative, filled with bold lines and colors. In his younger years, he drew airplanes and rockets. Today, many of the pieces that adorn his office walls and fill his filing cabinets illustrate the intersection of art and his life’s work: cancer research.
When did you first start drawing?
I think I’ve always been a doodler. I don’t consider myself an artist; I just doodle, and I’ve done that since I was little. But I come from a family of artists, so that probably influenced me. My aunt, Lola Burns, was a professional artist, my mother painted, and my sister went to art school. They all encouraged me to create. I doodled throughout college and on into my career. In fact, when I left the University of Rochester to come to Washington University School of Medicine in 1994, my colleagues presented me with a cake that read “Keep on Doodling.”
What is it about creating art that appeals to your medical mind?
Medicine requires me to think outside of the box, to ask questions about ideas that have not yet been considered. This kind of thinking is like putting shapes and colors together in a different but precise way. That’s the beauty of medicine and of art: extending the boundaries of what you know and what you know to be true so that it results in something new and exciting.
Tell us about your cancer research.
I am an oncologist specializing in leukemia and stem cell transplantation. We have one of the largest bone marrow transplant programs in the world at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, with more than 500 transplants performed annually. My research at Washington University School of Medicine has focused on finding more effective ways to treat blood cancers, such as leukemia and lymphoma. Our research team was instrumental in developing and gaining FDA approval in 2008 of a drug called plerixafor, which is used for the collection of stem cells for transplant, and for approval in 2019 of Jakafi, an existing drug we retooled for the treatment of the dreaded complication of stem cell transplantation: graft-versus-host disease.
One of my colleagues, Timothy Ley, MD, chief of the school’s Section of Stem Cell Biology, was the first to sequence an entire cancer genome—from a patient with acute myeloid leukemia.
We have also been working to develop new genetically manipulated immune cells using a gene-editing tool called CRISPR, as well as studying insertion of the chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) gene in T cells and other immune cells to fight different cancers. Siteman Cancer Center was among the first in the country to offer CAR-T cell therapy for patients with leukemia and lymphoma. And we’ve established the Center for Gene and Cellular Immunotherapy, which is solely focused on identifying and conducting clinical trials for promising therapies to treat hematologic malignancies and solid tumors.
WE DO AN EXPERIMENT, WE LEARN, AND WE MOVE IN NEW DIRECTIONS.
You’ve talked about the way your drawings help you think through problems. What breakthroughs have you experienced recently?
I can think of several. For example: We can now identify specific gene mutations in patients’ cancer cells and target these specific mutations with specific drugs.
We are optimizing novel approaches to perform stem cell transplants without the need for radiation or chemotherapy, which makes the treatment safer for patients.
Work over the past decade has resulted in a drug called ruxolitinib, the first to be approved by the FDA for treating acute graft-versus-host disease, a life-threatening condition that sometimes occurs after donated bone marrow or stem cells attack the recipient.
And other colleagues are defining new ways to use natural killer cells to destroy tumors; decoding the dictionary developing novel mechanisms for tracking diseases as they persist or progress covertly in our patients; and developing new therapies and approaches for bone marrow cancers associated with the aging process. I believe better and more precise personalized drugs and treatments, not only for blood cancers but for all cancers, are on the horizon.
Any last thoughts about art and medicine?
When I sit over a piece of paper with a pen or paints, I can make any shape I want. And as I work with shape and color, and learn new things about them, it moves me into new areas. And that’s exactly what I see in oncology research. We do an experiment, we learn, and we move in new directions. I’ll keep drawing for two reasons: for the fun of it and for the process, which always seems to push me in new directions.