February 2018 – Louis Lombardo once thought he’d go to medical school—until a chance to do pharmaceutical research as an undergraduate at Drew University changed all that and sparked a career discovering new cancer drugs.
“In drug discovery, you get the good of helping people, and you also get the interesting aspects of practicing chemistry, which I really liked,” said Lombardo, a 1982 graduate who recently described his research to students at Drew. “There’s the constant learning, the constant challenges, learning new technologies and working with different scientists.”
Lombardo, now a group director of oncology chemistry at Bristol-Myers Squibb, majored in biochemistry as an undergraduate and was one of the first students in Drew’s Charles A. Dana Research Institute for Scientists Emeriti program. RISE is staffed by retired professional scientists who mentor and guide students through original laboratory research.
During his talk, Lombardo discussed his research into Sprycel, a drug approved for the treatment of chronic myeloid leukemia. Sprycel was developed after another leukemia drug, Gleevec, was found to lose its power in some patients, as cancer cells mutate to resist its effects. With Sprycel, Lombardo said, there is less cell mutation. The drug was originally developed as a treatment for autoimmune diseases.
Since its inception, RISE scientists have mentored some 400 science students, many of whom have gone on to top doctoral, medical, dental and veterinary programs. Longtime RISE Fellow Dr. William Campbell won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his groundbreaking work on the development of a drug that treats parasitic diseases.
RISE’s founding director was George deStevens, a former director of research at Ciba-Geigy. He was Lombardo’s mentor in his undergraduate research, and helped guide him to graduate school at Yale University, where he earned a PhD in synthetic organic chemistry.
Three decades later, Lombardo was back in The Forest, leading undergraduates through charts, graphs and complex diagrams of molecules. His last slide, however, was simpler, featuring the words of a patient helped by Sprycel in an early clinical trial.
“As I write this, I have tears of joy streaming down my face,” the patient wrote. “Joy for all those patients who have had little hope. . . . They now have a safety net.”
“This is why I go to work every day,” Lombardo said. “Just fantastically gratifying.”