Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service
Dr. Chris Kemp still remembers vividly the cold, dark December morning six years ago when he, Dr. Eduardo Méndez and their collaborators received the call from the National Cancer Institute, informing them that their grant had been funded. The team had proposed to combine high-throughput functional screening and genomic analysis to improve cancer drug discovery.
“I was pessimistic. … Eddie was hugely optimistic. He said, ‘We’re in the house!’ The next five years were magical, research-wise,” recalled Kemp, who studies tumor formation and precision oncology approaches at Fred Hutch.
From this grant and collaboration sprung a new drug target for patients with difficult-to-treat head-and-neck cancer, and a clinical trial testing a drug that made some patients’ inoperable tumors melt away.
Méndez, who passed away Friday from cancer, surrounded by his close-knit family, left a lifesaving legacy that will carry on through his patients, his colleagues and his visionary cancer research. He was 45.
He specialized in treating head-and-neck cancer, an often disfiguring and debilitating disease. It was his mission to save lives and spare patients as many negative effects as possible, whether through spearheading minimally invasive robotic surgery for these tumors (he was the first in Washington state to perform such surgery), or through tirelessly seeking new and improved treatments in his laboratory at Fred Hutch.
“There are hundreds of cancer patients that I know of who are alive today because of Eddie. They received the gift of life from him,” Seattle Cancer Care Alliance colleague and radiation oncologist Dr. Upendra Parvathaneni wrote in an email. “I’ll always cherish the time we were blessed to spend together. During his brief life span Eddie achieved what most would struggle to do in many lifetimes.”
Giving the gift of life
Méndez was known as a man who could do just about everything — and do it well. Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1972, Méndez attended Princeton University and then obtained his medical degree (cum laude, no less) from the University of Maryland at Baltimore School of Medicine. He then came to the University of Washington as a surgical resident.
Méndez spent his career broadening his expertise. In 2000, the new medical resident joined the laboratory of Hutch epidemiologist Dr. Chu Chen to do his research rotations. Four-month research stints, sandwiched between clinical obligations, blossomed into a fruitful collaboration as Méndez, under Chen’s mentorship, began studying gene expression in head-and-neck tumors.
He was one of the first surgeons to embrace genomics and precision medicine, said Kemp, who first met Méndez in the early 2000s. At an early meeting to discuss strategy for scientists interested in oncogenomics to discuss their shared research vision, “Someone asked, ‘Who’s that guy Eddie? He was an angel.’ And he was truly an angel,” Kemp remembered.
Chen encouraged Méndez to pursue a master’s degree in epidemiology, which he obtained from UW in 2010 — all while continuing to operate on patients with head-and-neck cancer.
“He was very devoted to patients and very dedicated to work,” said Chen, who became Méndez’s long-term research mentor. She recalled how discussions with Méndez could last half a day as surgeon and epidemiologist delved into various aspects of their research. “I learned a lot from him. It wasn’t just what he learned from me.”
“The best way to describe Eddie: he was a Renaissance man. He was just good at everything,” said Dr. Cristina Rodriguez, a Hutch colleague and medical oncologist who worked with Méndez and Parvathaneni in the Wednesday morning, multidisciplinary head-and-neck cancer clinic at SCCA. “He had an amazing rapport with patients. He was a very skilled surgeon and a brilliant scientist. He navigated both the clinical and basic science aspects of his work so well, and I admired him tremendously for that.”
“His most remarkable characteristic was that he was always trying to do the right thing. He put patients’ interests first. He was fair with everybody involved in his projects. He wanted to give everyone the opportunity to shine,” Dr. Renato Martins, a fellow Hutch researcher and associate medical director of Adult Solid Tumor Oncology and clinical research director of Thoracic and Head and Neck Oncology at SCCA, wrote in an email.
Small lab, big research
Méndez’s commitment to patient-centered science was never-ending. Just days before his death, he cheered the acceptance of a paper, on which Dr. Chang Xu and computational biologist Dr. Olga Nikolova shared first authorship and Kemp was co-corresponding author, in the journal Clinical Cancer Research. In it, the team demonstrates the power of functional genomics to pinpoint potential drug targets in head-and-neck cancer that other approaches miss.
When Chen encouraged Méndez to establish his own lab, she also introduced him to Xu, who for eight years would be his only permanent employee. Medical residents or students temporarily added to the lab’s numbers, but the group stayed small. Its impact didn’t.
“Even though it’s a small lab, it’s big research,” said Xu, pointing to the more than $7 million in grant funding that Méndez drew from organizations ranging from the National Institutes of Health to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
A tireless collaborator, Méndez examined the genetic signatures of head-and-neck tumors with Chen. With Kemp and Hutch breast cancer oncologist and researcher Dr. V.K. Gadi, he sought tumors’ key vulnerabilities using a unique approach known as functional genomics, integrating high-throughput drug screening with genomic analyses. This partnership would lead to the identification of a protein known as Wee1 as a potential drug target unique to head-and-neck tumors with alterations in the gene p53 — and a clinical trial testing a Wee1 inhibitor in patients.
His excellence was clear even before collaborations began. Gadi met Méndez by chance when their daughters participated in the same ballet class several years ago. Both brought laptops and work.
“He would be hammering away on whatever grant he was writing, and I would be sitting next to him, hammering away on my grant. This went on for six months before we were like, ‘Hey, I’ve seen you at the Hutch.’” remembered Gadi. The two kept up a friendly familiarity for several years, each rising in their respective fields.
Then Kemp suggested a collaboration — using functional genomics to discover genetic alterations that make tumors, but not healthy tissue, susceptible to new drugs. He mentioned Méndez’s name to Gadi.
“I knew right away that this was going to be a quality thing, because Eddie’s involved, right?” recalled Gadi.
“To change how clinical practice is done takes an enormous amount of energy, and he did it with persistence, grace, and even humor,” said Kemp. “He was our hero.”
Though just a phase 1 study, the Wee1 inhibitor trial showed impressive results, shrinking tumors and enabling head-and-neck cancer patients with previously inoperable tumors to become candidates for surgery. Méndez presented the work at the American Head & Neck Society 9th International Conference on Head and Neck Cancer in July 2016, and the results were summarized in a recently submitted paper.
“Eddie’s research, especially with Wee1 inhibitors, has worked miracles for the most advanced head and neck cancers and is very likely to become a major tool in treating cancers in the future,” wrote Parvathaneni.
A great mentor
Many scientists who worked with Méndez consider him a role model.
“All clinical research groups try to deliver therapy from the bench to the bed. He’s a very good role model [for that],” said Dr. Heuijoon Park, a postdoctoral fellow in Méndez’s lab. “He demonstrated strong leadership with a warm heart.”
Even after mentees left his lab, Méndez strongly supported their careers, said Park. He wanted success for everyone around him, and was a “rare advocate for junior researchers,” said Nikolova.
Tough but nurturing, Méndez expected nothing less than excellence, wrote Dr. R. Alex Harbison, a head-and-neck surgery resident at UW who worked as a research fellow in Méndez’s lab. “I looked up to him in every aspect of life and a part of him will always live through me and the many other lives he touched,” said Harbison. “I could write a book about the mentorship Dr. Méndez provided me.”
Many who worked with him also appreciated the optimism with which he approached research. Even when experiments had “failed,” Méndez could see the bright side, said Xu: what had been learned, what could be improved, the new information gleaned even when hypotheses were proved wrong. Always patient, Méndez saw mistakes as learning opportunities.
“I’m always the half-glass empty guy. He’s always half-glass full guy. … We joke that that’s why we are a perfect [research pair],” said Xu, who considered Méndez both colleague and close friend. “The glass is always half-empty now that he is gone.”
A ‘prince in every way’
Like Xu, many at the Hutch considered Mendez more than a co-worker.
Chen recalled a visit from Mendez’s parents early after he joined her lab. “His mother said, ‘Doesn’t he just put a smile on your face?’ Yes. All these years,” said Chen. “I became so proud of him. … He reached the pinnacle of a physician-scientist.”
Méndez was well-rounded outside his work as well. He drew joy from his family and friends, traveling the world, playing tennis, and always dressed impeccably, said Rodriguez. “He was just a person that you loved being with,” she said. “It made going to work a pleasure.”
Gadi sums it up succinctly: “He was a prince, in every way.”
Chen visited her daughter and newborn twin grandchildren for the holidays, shortly after learning that Méndez had entered hospice. On the plane, she listened to Andrea Bocelli sing Ave Maria, and wept. “I felt as if I was attending a mass with Eddie,” she said. “What an example he was to physician-scientists, what a brilliant, shooting star … He was my bright, shining star.”
Méndez is survived by his wife, Anne Manicone; daughters, Emma and Julia; brothers, George, Bobby, and Alfonso Méndez; sister, Maria Elena Ray; and mother, Belkys Méndez.
In honor of Méndez, an endowment is being established in his name to help continue his legacy and work in head-and-neck cancer. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the University of Washington, Department of Otolaryngology, Eduardo Méndez Endowment, 1959 N.E. Pacific St., Box 356515, Seattle, WA 98195.
Sabrina Richards, a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, has written about scientific research and the environment for The Scientist and OnEarth Magazine. She has a Ph.D. in immunology from the University of Washington, an M.A. in journalism and an advanced certificate from the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.