Julie Graff, M.D.
Assistant Professor of Medicine, Division of Hematology and Medical Oncology; Staff Physician, VA Portland Health Care System
Graff is an oncologist specializing in prostate cancer at the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute. She treats patients and leads a research study that has provided the first-ever evidence that immunotherapy can slow life-threatening prostate cancer.
What were you hoping for, when you started the study?
When we started the study, we had no idea if this treatment would work at all. So it was exhilarating when our first patient went from having PSA levels of 80 to undetectable. (PSA stands for prostate-specific antigens, which become elevated in men with cancer.) We thought, this is a fluke. And then it happened four more times. It’s been amazing and the patients are extremely appreciative. I am grateful to the men who agreed to take a chance and participate in our clinical trial. The treatment hasn’t worked for everyone and there can be some terrible side effects.
What’s the future potential of your approach?
Immunotherapy has been a paradigm shifter. It’s been FDA approved to treat multiple cancer types. But we still don’t fully understand why it works in only some patients or what causes the side effects in others. If we can understand why it works in some patients and not others, maybe we can prime other patients so that they can become responders too.
I feel strongly that there is a certain percentage of men with incurable prostate cancer out there who could have a profound response to this therapy that’s already available. I feel lots of pressure to find out who they are so we can help them.
What made you want to become a doctor? An oncologist?
I have a wonderful mother who noticed when I was very young that I wanted to be a doctor. She had a friend who was a nurse who would bring me medical literature and posters of the muscular system and anatomy. In college I took premed and also become interested in research. In my junior year, I volunteered with a hospice organization, working with terminally ill patients. I really connected with them. That’s when I knew oncology would be a good fit.
What kind of character does it take to do what you do?
Putting the question of individual character aside, I think the most important thing is to be part of a good team. There’s a ton of work for a study like this. You have to take care of the patients. You have to do all of the study-related work. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without my fabulous team – Rachel Slottke, Joshi Alumkal, M.D., George Thomas, Frederick Ey, M.D., Raymond Bergan, M.D., Jeremy Cetnar, M.D., Kristi Eilers, Tomasz Beer, M.D., and others. They are an amazing group of people.
You went to George Washington University for your medical degree and then came to OHSU for you residency in internal medicine and fellowship in hematology and medical oncology. And obviously you have stayed. What made you choose OHSU?
A couple of reasons. I am very close to my aunt, who lives in Oregon. Knowing I wanted to pursue oncology, I emailed Tomasz Beer, whose work I admired. I was incredibly lucky because he gave me the opportunity to work on one of his projects. We got along well, and I continued working with him through my fellowship. He encouraged me to apply for a job at the V.A. Hospital and he continues to be my mentor.