November 6, 2019

Rathmell receives 2019 Eugene P. Schonfeld Award

The Kidney Cancer Association is recognizing the research accomplishments and leadership achievements of W. Kimryn Rathmell, MD, PhD, with its top honor, the Eugene P. Schonfeld Award.


by Tom Wilemon

The Kidney Cancer Association is recognizing the research accomplishments and leadership achievements of W. Kimryn Rathmell, MD, PhD, with its top honor, the Eugene P. Schonfeld Award.

Kimryn Rathmell, MD, PhD

The Eugene P. Schonfeld Award recognizes highly respected health care professionals who have made significant contributions in the treatment of renal cell carcinoma.

Rathmell, the Cornelius Abernathy Craig Professor of Medicine and director of the Division of Hematology and Oncology, is the first woman to receive the honor. She currently serves as the president of The American Society for Clinical Investigation and chairs the Kidney Cancer Research Program for the Department of Defense Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs.

Her career has paralleled the trajectory of advancements in kidney cancer research and treatment, some of which she helped bring about through her advocacy and her own studies. She was an investigator with the Cancer Genome Atlas, a landmark genomics program that molecularly characterized cancers, including specificity about the diversity of kidney cancers. She is a clinician who ushered in new life-saving treatments. And she is a leader who has advocated for funding for kidney cancer research, including rare forms.

“When I first started, there really were very few kidney cancer clinical investigators,” Rathmell said. “People tended to focus broadly on genitourinary cancer and might actually be more prostate cancer focused and do some kidney on the side. Because I was so interested in the biology of kidney cancer and intent on being a physician scientist, I thought kidney cancer was a good place to start. It melded well with what I wanted to study. It was a disease that was completely orphaned. There were essentially no effective therapies for the great majority of patients.”

The only drug available for kidney cancer when she received her medical degree from Stanford University in 1998 was interleukin-2, which was effective in only a small subset of patients. Now, targeted therapies and immunotherapies are the mainstream.

“I have sort of ridden the wave of new discoveries and new innovations, new therapies,” she said. “In my career, we have gone from almost every patient having to have a hospice discussion on their first encounter to now being able to tell some of my patients I’m reasonably sure we have you cured. That happened in gradual steps.”

The initial steps were recognizing the complexities of kidney cancers.

“One of the things that I was very frustrated by as a trainee was how often the very different types of kidney cancers would get lumped together,” she said. “We treated them all the same even though we knew our therapies wouldn’t work for all these patients. That was very frustrating for me. I felt like here was an opportunity for some improvement.”

That opportunity came when Rathmell heard about the Cancer Genome Atlas project. A young researcher at the University of North Carolina at the time, she inquired about how much emphasis would be given to kidney cancer and offered tissue samples from a UNC biobank.

“That got me involved,” she said. “Then as I had hoped, kidney cancer did get a full project. In fact, the three major kidney cancer subtypes independently got projects. This was a chance to sit with a group of brilliant people with all the data you could envision from the technology at the time to stipulate what is kidney cancer and how do we define it.”

In 2016, she championed the needs of patients with a rare form of kidney cancer called renal medullary carcinoma  (RMC) that afflicts children, adolescents and young adults, particularly African Americans. She convened a panel of leading experts to meet in Nashville that year and invited families affected by the disease. The meeting led to the creation of RMC Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy organization.

When she became a kidney cancer researcher, and for many years afterward, there were few women in the field, which at the time was dominated by urologists, mostly men. Rathmell has mentored other women in the field as well as both male and female physician scientists. She is committed to advancing the science of medicine and mentoring a new generation of physician scientists.

Rathmell leads the Vanderbilt Integrated Molecular Oncology Research Training Program for clinical fellows that is supported by National Cancer Institute (NCI) funding, and she co-leads (with Debra Friedman, MD) the Vanderbilt Clinical Oncology Career Development Program, an early career faculty Paul Calabrese training program also supported by the NCI. She served on the NCI Board of Scientific Advisors and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Awards for Medical Scientists Advisory Committee. These activities are a part of her mission to encourage and sustain more talented physicians to pursue a career in medical science.

“If I can make a dent in that, I’ll be incredibly happy,” she said.

Toni K. Choueiri, MD, with the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute will present Rathmell with the award Nov. 15 during the International Kidney Cancer Symposium in Miami, Florida, where Rathmell will deliver the Eugene P. Schonfeld Memorial Lecture.