Bloomfield Building on Legacy of Leukemia Treatment Breakthroughs
Clara Bloomfield, MD, doesn’t like talking about her long list of accomplishments as a pioneer in the field of cancer research. Not one bit.
“I don’t spend my time thinking about what I did so many years ago,” Bloomfield says. “I think about what’s next.”
It’s this philosophy that has driven Bloomfield to the top of her field and led to several breakthroughs in the treatment of blood cancers. Bloomfield, 75, has spent the past several decades identifying the biological markers, chromosome changes and genetic mutations in leukemia and lymphoma. Her findings opened the door to a new generation of cancer research that looked at the cause of cancers, which in turn led to improved and more precise treatments and better patient outcomes.
Bloomfield, now the William G. Pace III Professor of Cancer Research at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James), served as the OSUCCC’s director from 1997-2003. After she stepped down, she became the senior advisor to the Ohio State cancer program and the charter member of the Ohio State Cancer Scholars Program, which recruits and retains cancer investigators from around the world. She has published more than 600 peer-reviewed journal articles and won too many awards to list in full, including her election to the National Academy of Medicine and the Distinguished Service Award for Scientific Achievement from the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO).
Becoming a cancer researcher
It all began for Bloomfield at age four, when she pretended to be a nurse while playing with friends in her Washington, D.C. neighborhood.
“I came home and told my mother that I knew what I was going to be,” she recalls. “She said, ‘That’s nice, what are you going to be?’ I said I was going to be a nurse, and she said, ‘You might as well be a doctor.’”
Bloomfield’s mother was also a bit of a pioneering feminist. She was one of the first women to attend law school at the University of Illinois, beginning her studies when her daughter was in first grade. “She got her law degree the same year I graduated high school,” Bloomfield says.
Taking her mom’s advice, Bloomfield eventually attended medical school at the University of Chicago. “They were known as a place for women—I think eight of us out of 62 or 64 were women.” She remained at the school for a residency in internal medicine and became interested in genetics and blood cancers before moving on to a medical oncology fellowship at the University of Minnesota.
“I wanted to do Hodgkin (lymphoma) research,” she says. “But the person in charge said there was already a fellow a year ahead of me working on that, and he said nobody was doing AML (acute myeloid leukemia). I said fine.”
At the time, the prevailing thought was that there was no cure for AML.
“Older patients were not even treated,” Bloomfield says. And yet, she noticed something in some of the older AML patients she examined: a few lived for three to five years, and members of a smaller subset were cured.
This led to a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association—and a turning point in Bloomfield’s nascent career. “When you come up with something that’s not accepted, it makes people interested in what you’re doing,” she says of her AML findings. “When, all of a sudden, you’re saying something that no one else believes, that can be good for your career… as long as it’s true.”
The Philadelphia chromosome
This began a series of common themes that has run throughout Bloomfield’s career: she made discoveries that went against the prevailing view, her research and findings were proven correct and her discoveries helped change the course of cancer research.
Another example can be found in the Philadelphia chromosome, an abnormality that leads to chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML). “I found that it also occurred in a subgroup of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) patients,” Bloomfield says. “No one believed it. The Philadelphia chromosome was supposed to go along with CML, and people thought I couldn’t tell ALL from CML. But of course, I was seeing patients and could tell the difference.”
Bloomfield was correct and later discovered abnormalities in chromosome 16q22 that lead to AML.
Coming to Ohio State
Bloomfield was the chair of the Department of Medicine at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute from 1989 to 1997, where one of her many mentees was Michael Caligiuri, MD. She had gained an international reputation by this time and was recruited by The Ohio State University to take charge of the cancer center.
Initially, Bloomfield wasn’t interested, saying, “Whoever heard of Ohio State as a cancer center? It didn’t have a reputation then.” However, Bloomfield visited Ohio State and saw potential, along with the resources and will to reach it.
“If you’re going to take a top administrative position, there’s no point in taking one where everything is already done,” says Bloomfield, one of the first women to lead a major cancer research center. “That’s not a challenge.”
There was one other reason Bloomfield agreed to lead the OSUCCC.
“My husband and I had lived apart for 13 years,” she says of her marriage to the eminent Finnish geneticist Albert de la Chapelle, MD, PhD, who discovered the XX male syndrome and is a pioneer in finding the genetic mutations that lead to colorectal cancer. “He was facing mandatory retirement age in Finland and still wanted to work.”
The OSUCCC got not one, but two world-renowned cancer researchers, plus an up-and-coming star in Caligiuri, whom Bloomfield brought with her.
Bloomfield began recruiting top-notch cancer scientists from around the country, and the OSUCCC quickly gained a reputation for providing great opportunities. “I had resources and I was recognized as being an established and a good investigator, and people believed me when I said I could give them an opportunity to do good work,” she says.
The plan all along was to eventually turn over the leadership role of the OSUCCC to Caligiuri.
“I brought Mike here to succeed me, so I could go back to concentrating on my research,” Bloomfield said. Caligiuri became head of the cancer center in 2003.
Caligiuri described his mentor as “unstoppable, the most organized and driven person I have ever met … She gave me one opportunity for growth after another and I’ve tried to emulate her as a leader.”
The work continues
Over the last several years, Bloomfield has concentrated on her research, finding a series of what she calls “molecular and cytogenetic findings” in blood cancers and leading several studies and trials that examine patient responses to treatments. Bloomfield has helped to push the needle forward in terms of identifying what predicts the outcome in leukemia and lymphoma and the most effective treatments.
For example, Bloomfield and Ann-Kathrin Eisfeld, MD, a member of Ohio State’s Internal Medicine/Physician-Scientist Training Program, recently published a paper in the journal Leukemia detailing their identification of combinations of gene mutations that predict whether older patients with AML might go into complete remission when treated with standard chemotherapy.
Bloomfield has no plans to slow down or retire.
“I’d go crazy if I wasn’t working,” she says.