The cancer drugs, radiation therapy and cancer surgery available today help millions of people survive their cancer. People like Dr. Olivier Rixe have made these advances in cancer treatment possible.
“When my peers started to use chemotherapy in the 1950s, it was the same treatment for everyone,” says Rixe. “Now we can use genomics, bioinformatics and other outstanding tools to identify how to hit the target.”
But discovering a cellular target in the lab and helping people to benefit from the discovery requires a long series of steps. Rixe excels at those steps. He recently joined the UNM Cancer Center as the Associate Director for Clinical Research. He will help develop the early phase clinical trials and the neuro-oncology programs.
Equally comfortable in the lab and in the clinic, Rixe’s face lights up as he talks about how he brings the discoveries of basic science to his patients. “Sometimes, patients become resistant to the standard therapies,” he explains. “So we have to identify for those patients new strategies. Those new strategies are being tested on those patients and, by definition, they are the first 20, 30 or 40 pioneers to explore a new avenue.”
Every new drug needs to have its first patients. Those first patients face the risk of unforeseen side effects or of the drug not working as predicted. But they may also get a cancer-curing drug 10 to 15 years before it’s publicly available. Rixe wants to give that possibility to all New Mexicans.
Although the number of clinical trials nationwide has leapt since 2005, Rixe says that the United States has few early phase clinical trials programs. Early phase clinical trials test not only whether a new drug works but also, for the first time, its dose and toxicity in humans. “Unfortunately, patients have to travel to get access to new developments and new therapeutics,” he says. “So, we want our population in New Mexico to have access to these innovative, new therapeutics.”
All clinical trials must adhere to very strict guidelines. They must meet exacting research standards and clinical standards while delivering the best care possible. Meeting such standards requires a team structure in which scientists, nurses and doctors can work very closely together. “Sometimes you need to know more about a treatment,” Rixe says. “So then you need to go back to the lab because you need additional information from the cancer cell and its microenvironment to identify a factor that can predict drug activity.” One of Rixe’s roles will be to develop a clinical trial structure at UNM Cancer Center that focuses on early-phase cancer clinical trials.
Rixe also has a strong interest in neuro-oncology. He completed much of his early career at Pitié-Salpêtrière in downtown Paris, one of the oldest and largest hospitals in Europe and the birthplace of neurology. “I was exposed very early in my training to neurology before my long training in oncology,” he says. “There’s an historical legacy there.” Rixe will join the outstanding neuro-oncology team, a joint effort between the UNM School of Medicine Department of Neurosurgery and the UNM Cancer Center.
But Rixe’s strength and passion lies in bringing new drugs to FDA approval. “I was one of the first to treat patients with new treatments that are now used worldwide. We had no clue at the time if it could have any impact,” he says now. “And, then you discover that five to 10 years later those drugs are used everywhere in the world.”
Among the drugs Rixe has helped bring to standard therapy are oxaliplatin, a colon cancer drug, and axitinib, a drug that treats kidney cancers. “Being a pioneer in testing new hypotheses and trying to move as fast as we can to improve, in the end, patient care is what drives me everyday in the context of a wider comprehensive and integrative healing strategy.”