August Physician of the Month: Dukagjin Blakaj

Blakaj POTM

A brick helped bring Dukagjin Blakaj, MD, PhD, to The James.

But it wasn’t any ordinary brick.

After he completed his residency in radiation oncology in New York, Blakaj was recruited by several cancer centers.

“One of my mentors told me I should look at The James, that there was someone there, Arnab Chakravarti, who is heading radiation oncology and doing some wonderful things.”

Blakaj arrived in Columbus as construction was underway on the new home of The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James).

“Dr. Chakravarti gave me a hard hat and sent me on a tour of the building—and he’s a very good recruiter,” Blakaj says of the man he now calls his mentor. “One of the construction workers handed me this brick, a small brick. I thought, ‘No problem.’ But as soon as he handed it to me, my whole arm dropped. It was really heavy.”

These were special, super-dense bricks that were used in constructing the state-of-art radiation oncology center on the second floor of The James. Most radiation centers are located in the basement. This is done for safety reasons, but can sometimes create an unpleasant experience for patients. A $100 million federal grant allowed the radiation center at The James to be built on the second floor with plenty of light from large windows and lots of comfortable open space for patients and their family members. It’s one of the most patient-friendly radiation centers in the world.

“To build a radiation oncology center on the second floor, you need these special bricks of dense concrete to prevent the X-rays from seeping through the walls and possibly harming people,” explains Blakaj, who was very impressed by his tour the new James. “My eyes were popping out of my head from looking at this amazing facility they’re building.”

Skip ahead five years and Blakaj, the OSUCCC – James Physician of the Month for August, is ensconced on that facility’s second floor, treating patients with head and neck cancer and cancer in the spine, and doing research that is helping to change the way radiation is used to treat cancer.

Blakaj was born in Kosovo. His father, Muhamet, was a doctor specializing in infectious diseases. His mother, Pembe, was also a physician, specializing in internal medicine. His sister, Adriana, is a resident radiation oncologist at the Yale School of Medicine.

“That shows how much of an influence our parents were on us,” Blakaj says.

When he was 14, the family moved to Connecticut as a civil war was brewing in Kosovo that eventually erupted in 1998.

“Things didn’t get better at home, and their medical sabbatical became permanent,” he says.

The research Blakaj and his James colleagues devote themselves to tackles several different areas, but in general they’re trying to discover what works—and what doesn’t—and why. The answers to these questions could lead to breakthroughs that improve outcomes for patients.

“We’re very patient-centric and everything we do is designed to learn the answers to these questions so we can help,” Blakaj says.

For example, patients with advanced-stage voice box and larynx cancer have a 50 percent cure rate. Blakaj and his colleagues have collected tissue samples from patients whose cancer went into remission, and from those whose cancer continued to spread.

“We’re now trying to understand, at a genetic and protein level, why it worked on some patients and didn’t work on others,” he says. “Then perhaps we can begin to think about how to change how we treat people.”

Blakaj is also investigating how radiation oncology can be utilized alongside immunotherapy, a revolutionary new treatment.

“We’re seeing evidence that radiation delivered along with immunotherapy can be helpful. The idea is that the immunotherapy induces the immune system to fight the cancer and the radiation can further prime and treat the cancer simultaneously,” he says. “We’re still learning, and we’re actively involved in many national clinical trials.”

Blakaj is also innovating through intraoperative radiation therapy, a treatment available at only a small number of U.S. cancer centers, and involves the removal of a tumor followed immediately by the delivery of radiation in collaboration with the surgeon.

“This is a very precise way to deliver radiation, and it can be safer, in terms of toxicity,” Blakaj says.

Blakaj gets excited when he talks about his work—and his co-workers.

“I am always learning from my colleagues, and I never feel comfortable because there is always more to learn and new discoveries being made,” he says. “This is such an exciting time and we are making so many breakthroughs.”

Blakaj and his wife, Sinead, who works in software technology, have two children: Arben, 3, and Sofia, 1—and a third is on the way in October. His mom and dad, now retired, live in Columbus and spend a lot of time spoiling their grandchildren.