Fighting Cancer

Former Chemistry major Matthew Ames ’70 went from conducting life-saving medical research to raising money for the prestigious Mayo Clinic. He credits Whitman for giving him three life skills that led to success in the lab and beyond. 

By Edward Weinman

His cancer research at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic is providing hope for patients fighting breast cancer.

Matthew Ames ’70, one of the longest serving directors of research at the Mayo Clinic, has made major contributions to cancer treatment by focusing on “the development of more effective agents for the treatment of malignant diseases” with an emphasis including “defining mechanisms of action of novel anticancer agents, characterization of preclinical and clinical pharmacology of anticancer agents, and the role of inheritance (genetic variability) in patient responses to anticancer agents.”

In other words, figuring out why some cancer drugs work for some patients but are ineffective on other patients, and how to individualize therapy for cancer drugs.

“I’m a laboratory investigator,” said Ames, who is helping to discover “the right drug at the right dose for every [cancer] patient.”

“Whitman teaches three lifelong skills that will lead to success in any career: critical thinking, how to speak well and how to write well. I learned the values of these skills at Whitman.”
— Matthew Ames ’70

Over the course of his illustrious 30-plus year career at the Mayo Clinic, Ames has published hundreds of manuscripts and received millions of dollars in grants, but he feels the research he oversaw during the past seven years is his most important. This research involved studying how the genetic makeup of patients affects how they respond to drugs.

“Studying genetic variation as it relates to how a patient responds to drugs is the most exciting research that I felt I did” at the Mayo Clinic, Ames said.

Of the more than 20,000 genes and 50,000 proteins in the human body, Ames says only a small subset make proteins in the liver that directly impact the fate of drugs in the body. These proteins break down about 80 percent of drugs ingested into the human body. Ames’ major discoveries deal in part with how the liver either activates drugs or renders them impotent and how those processes vary among individuals in a population based on genetic makeup.

Specifically working in the area of estrogen receptor positive (or ER+) breast cancer, Ames’ research group, in collaboration with a medical oncologist, Dr. Matthew Goetz, has focused on a family of genes known as the CYP P450s and how these genes interact with Tamoxifen, an important anti-hormonal agent used to treat ER+ breast cancer.

Drs. Goetz and Ames concluded that a genetic variation of CYP2D6 in the gene mediated the efficacy of Tamoxifen. In layman’s terms, women who had variant forms of CYP2D6 could not properly metabolize Tamoxifen to the active form of the drug called Endoxifen, and therefore had higher recurrence of their breast cancer.

The result of these studies has been to develop that active metabolite, Endoxifen, as a better agent for treatment of ER+ breast cancer.

Genetic research to individualize drug therapy is a growing trend in medicine: drug treatments tailored to patients’ specific genetic makeup.

Genetic research helps to “develop new anticancer drugs with new mechanisms that make the drugs more targeted and less toxic,” Ames said.

Providing better care and hope for cancer patients is about research, drug discovery and evidenced-based medicine. However, this takes money, which is why fundraising is so critical to institutions conducting medical research.

Ames spent part of the latter portion of his tenure at the Mayo Clinic aiding the clinic’s philanthropic efforts in the department of development. In fact, he was so successful raising money that in semi-retirement at his lakefront property in Idaho (after March 1), he will continue to fundraise and advocate for the Mayo Clinic.

His fundraising involves giving updates about the clinic’s research and philanthropic priorities to a convention room full of potential donors. Fundraising also means sitting down privately with those who run philanthropic foundations. Sometimes, development meant Ames traveled to Kennebunkport, Maine, to sit in the home of President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, who served as a member of the Board of Trustees from 1993 to 2001.

How has a doctor – whose titles at the Mayo Clinic have included professor of pharmacology and chair of molecular pharmacology and experimental therapeutics, among others – come to possess the skills needed to schmooze with a former president and first lady?

The answer? Whitman College.

“Whitman teaches three lifelong skills that will lead to success in any career: critical thinking, how to speak well and how to write well,” Ames said. “I learned the values of these skills at Whitman.

“Whitman gave me the baseline foundation in these areas to prepare me to be a scientist, but also to cross boundaries to other responsibilities I quite enjoyed – research administration and working in the Mayo Clinic’s department of development.”

Ames was so impressed by the liberal arts education he received at Whitman that he encouraged his daughter to apply. She’s now a first-year student at Whitman.

“If I embarrass her, she’ll never forgive me,” Ames said. “But she loves it. She’s reading, thinking and writing. For her it’s the perfect fit.”