Lee M. Ellis, MD, FACS, FASCO
Dr. Ellis is the Ruben Distinguished Chair in Gastroenterology Cancer Research and a professor in the Departments of Surgical Oncology, and Molecular & Cellular Oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center (MDACC). He previously served as interim chair, Department of Cancer Biology (2008-2012), Director of the Metastasis Research Center (2010-2012), and Director of the Colorectal Cancer (CRC) Translational Research Program (2007-2013) at MDACC. He is currently Executive Director for Translational Medicine for MDACC’s Global Academic Program.
Dr. Ellis’s laboratory has made several fundamental contributions to the field of cancer research. His group was the first to identify VEGF as an important mediator of colorectal cancer (CRC) angiogenesis, growth, and tumor cell survival. He further established that VEGF was the driving force behind malignant effusions and ascites in cancer patients. Since these discoveries, VEGF-targeted therapies have been approved for the treatment of patients with a variety of malignancies, including metastatic CRC, his primary field of research. Due to Dr. Ellis’s expertise in translational research, he frequently provides the perspective of an international thought leader in providing insights and recommendations regarding the proper use of VEGF-targeted therapies. His perspective also includes when not to use this therapeutic approach, supporting the safe use of these drugs and protecting patients from unnecessary complication. Dr. Ellis strongly advocated against the use of anti-angiogenic therapies in the adjuvant setting as evidenced in a memorable 2009 Plenary discussion at an American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) meeting, the world’s largest cancer organization (where he currently serves on the Board of Directors). Additionally, Dr. Ellis’s laboratory was the first to hypothesize that mutated Ras could potentially be a resistance marker for EGFR-targeted therapies. Following his review on this topic in Clinical Cancer Research, clinical studies demonstrated that mutated Ras was indeed a resistance marker for EGFR antibody therapy in patients with metastatic CRC (mCRC), and the FDA subsequently mandated wild-type Ras status for patients with mCRC being considered for EGFR antibody therapy. The above academic activities directly impacted the clinical care of patients with cancer.
One very unique contribution to the research community was the publication of a Comment in Nature in 2012, co-authored with Dr. C. Glenn Begley (Dr. Ellis was the corresponding author). In this article, Drs. Ellis and Begley provided insight on the critically important subject of data reproducibility and research integrity. Drs. Ellis and Begley reported that the vast majority of pre-clinical cancer research studies could not be reproduced. This manuscript led to the recognition of a “reproducibility crisis” as outlined by a Nature survey in 2016. The authors discussed that the pressure to publish in high impact journals impacts research integrity, and this was validated in further publications by Dr. Ellis and his research team. The “Comment” in Nature (cited >2,600 times) led to a series of changes to help enhance the honest reporting of published studies. This work led to a meeting at the NIH that included leadership from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) (Dr. Francis Collins), National Cancer Institute (NCI) (Dr. Harold Varmus) and other government and academic centers. This meeting initiated actions by the NIH to change the structure of the NIH biosketch to include a lists accomplishments rather than listing a series of manuscripts in high impact journals that may or may not be reproducible. Other steps were taken by journals including Nature, such as a “checklist” to help lead to more transparency in the process of reporting research methods and results. Dr. Ellis has lectured on this topic at multiple venues around the world including, the annual ASCO and AACR Annual Meetings. He has also been senior author on a number of manuscripts surveying investigators regarding the drivers of data manipulation, falsification, and fabrication.