Alex Herrera: Leading Force Behind Cancer Research at City Of Hope Hospital
Story By: Eliana Osborn
Alex Herrera knew he wanted a career that blended science and people. Job shadowing during his undergraduate years at Princeton University made it clear that medicine would work perfectly for him. That led to him earning an MD from Harvard, with a residency in internal medicine, then a hematology-oncology fellowship. Herrera has been at City of Hope Hospital in Los Angeles for the past three years, specially focused on hematology and lymphoma.
About 10 years ago, when Herrera was starting medical school, there was a boom in cancer treatment. Immunotherapy began to be used to attack cancers of all types. As he began to get more involved in cancer medicine, he realized what an exciting time it was to be in the field.
“We’re learning so much about how cancer works,” Herrera says. “There’s an explosion of potential new treatments.”
Herrera loves the research side of medicine as well as the patient care aspect, so understanding the genetics of lymphoma tumors has been a passion for him. His two areas of research these days include developing new medications for those with treatment resistant cancer. There are drugs in various phases of clinical trials, and some of that involves immune therapies.
He also studies how patients respond to different treatments.
“If you know how is likely to respond, before treating them, you can choose the best approach,” he said.
By studying biomarkers within the tumors themselves, Herrera and others like him are harnessing cutting edge technology.
They sequence the gene of tumors, not just taking samples and doing tissue stains as doctors have done traditionally. And a powerful computer program can analyze things like the distance between different immune cells in a tumor. That gives the hematologist information about what treatment will work best.
One of Herrera’s most exciting fields of focus is called MRD: Minimal Residual Disease. This biomarker can be used to track where a tumor can release cancer cells into the bloodstream. A blood test using MRD — cheaper than a full body scan — also can be done to find cancer cells in the body.
Herrera did his medical training in Boston, but he is enjoying his time in Los Angeles with a large minority population.
“As a Latino physician, most of my patients are Latino, and I’ve found that rewarding,” he said. “Patients really appreciate when they have a provider that not only speaks their language but also has some understanding of their culture.”
One thing Herrera wants to do at City of Hope is let people in the community know that the hospital is there, with cutting edge cancer care, right in people’s backyards.
“It is important to me to reach out to Latino patients and offer them the most advanced treatments and trials.”
Access continues to be an issue for medical care in all minority communities, which often means patients don’t get the most up-to-date care. Herrera says it is a priority to get all patients the same standard of care, no matter where they live or what their background is.
Herrera says the future is bright for lymphoma patients. There is “great potential for these drugs to treat lymphoma that was previously difficult to treat. Chemotherapy is still important, but if it isn’t working, we have many opportunities to try to treat with high effectiveness.”
He sees positive signs for minority professionals in the medical field, too. Latinos may not be highly visible in medical leadership, but there are lots of people working hard on the ground. There exists an understanding that diverse viewpoints are needed in research and patient care.
“Mentorship has been critical for my career,” Herrera says. And it is something he continues to be involved in through the American Society of Hematology.