Drs. Eddie Méndez and Ahmed Diab had been wrestling with words and data for weeks, trying to prepare a new manuscript for publication. But now they were running out of time.
They were proud of the paper. It reported on an early-phase trial of a potential new drug to treat certain head and neck cancers, Méndez’s area of expertise as a surgeon and a scientist.
Diab wasn’t a physician. And he wasn’t an expert in these hard-to-treat cancers. He was a postdoctoral research fellow in Méndez’s lab, studying how cells grow, divide and multiply. Diab had initially doubted his place in his mentor’s lab — he felt like an “imposter” when he arrived at Fred Hutch in 2016, he said — but Méndez had encouraged him to believe in himself, to believe that basic science could make a difference in patients’ lives.
The inaugural Dr. Eddie Méndez Postdoctoral Symposium will take place in Pelton Auditorium in Fred Hutch's Weintraub Building on Tuesday, June 4 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. If you are unable to join in person, the presentations will also be livestreamed.
Which is exactly what they had done. The results of the Phase 1 clinical trial were remarkable. In some patients, tumors that would have required disfiguring surgery simply melted away. The new drug had targeted an Achilles’ heel in these cancers, which Méndez found after years of searching at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. It was another highlight from Méndez’s determined efforts to save lives and spare his patients as much suffering as possible.
Méndez and Diab were eager to share those results with the world. But late in 2017, they ran out of time. Méndez was dying of liver cancer. He had worked on the manuscript as hard and as fast as he could. Then one day he simply couldn’t.
Diab said goodbye to his mentor in December. Dr. Eduardo ‘Eddie’ Méndez died Jan. 5, 2018. He was 45.
Diab was heartbroken. “I really wanted to have this paper out, so Eddie could see it,” said Diab, now a research fellow in Dr. Bruce Clurman’s lab. “It was a very hard time personally. But then I had to keep going, because it was so important to me that Eddie’s legacy continue in his work.”
He’s still going. Diab’s research continues to explore molecular weaknesses in head and neck cancers — and continues to honor his mentor’s legacy. So it’s fitting Diab will be honored next week as one of the inaugural winners of the Dr. Eddie Méndez Award, which recognizes postdoctoral researchers in cancer biology who are from underrepresented minority groups.
As Diab launches his career, continuing down a path that his mentor blazed, he will never forget how Méndez helped him get to where he is today. “Eddie gave unlimited, unwavering support in a way that gave you this affirmation that you can do it, that you have what it takes. If it wasn’t for Eddie, I wouldn’t have made it this far.”
Diab had always been interested in how viruses cause cancer. Growing up in Egypt played a role. The country has the highest rate of hepatitis C infection in the world. If left untreated, the virus can cause cirrhosis or liver cancer.
His dad, a physician in a small town near Cairo, carried the virus. It ultimately caused the cancer that killed him — just weeks before the same disease killed Méndez.
It’s still hard for Diab to look back on that brief period where he lost both his father and his mentor. He prefers to focus on the research.
“I guess what is consoling is that I am working in a field that is very close to me personally,” he said. “I would be very proud of any impact I could make, both for my dad and for Eddie.”
As a doctoral student at Purdue University, Diab decided to dive deep into the cell cycle. It is a tightly controlled series of events. At each stage, molecular guards known as checkpoints ensure the cell’s DNA is intact. If these checkpoints detect DNA damage, they will halt the cell cycle. If the damage isn’t repaired, the cell is marked for death.
On the other side of the country, Méndez was exploring how a virus — human papillomavirus, or HPV — causes head and neck cancer. He had teamed up with Clurman and the Hutch's Dr. Denise Galloway to understand the role of the cell cycle in HPV-linked cancers. That work was based on an observation he had made in the clinic: Patients were having a remarkable response to a drug that targeted a checkpoint called WEE1.
Diab came to Fred Hutch in 2016 and joined the group as they set out to explore the complex interplay between the cell cycle and HPV-linked cancers. He can still remember the sunny May day when he met Méndez. The world traveler — Diab has studied biology on four continents — was immediately struck by his style.
“I just thought, wow, he was so elegant! Researchers here in America tend to be a little laid-back, but Eddie had the Continental style.”
As their relationship deepened, Diab was struck by the patience of his mentor. He admits he was intimidated working with a trio of research rock stars. But Méndez made him feel like he belonged at the table with him.
“I think one of the most important things I want to take from him as a scientist is optimism. I do lack a lot in that department. Eddie never did.”
It was that optimism that helped Méndez flip the standard scientific script with the WEE1 clinical trial, Diab said. “Usually in science you go from bench to bedside. In this case we went back from clinic to bench to understand how this drug was miraculously working in patients with HPV-positive cancers.”
The paper about the WEE1 clinical trial appeared in Clinical Cancer Research a few months after Méndez passed. It was a highlight of the issue.
It was also one of three papers co-authored by Méndez in that issue. And his byline continues to appear in a steady stream of research papers. Earlier this year, Diab was lead author (with Méndez as senior author) on new research that continues to explore how the WEE1 inhibitor exploits molecular weaknesses in head and neck cancers. It, too, was a highlight of the issue.
Diab is proud to help carry on Méndez’s legacy. And like his mentor, he’s proud to bridge the world of basic science research and the bedside of people who desperately need hope.
“Working in cancer research, it’s always important to have patients in the picture,” Diab said. “This is, after all, why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
Jake Siegel is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. Previously, he covered health topics at UW Medicine and technology at Microsoft. He has an M.A. from the Missouri School of Journalism.