DURHAM — A Duke University oncologist has been named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine.
Kimberly Blackwell has been a lead researcher on treatments targeting a protein found in a type of aggressive breast cancer. The treatments she has helped develop are dubbed the “smart bombs” of oncology because they pair tumor-specific antibodies with chemotherapy drugs to target cancer cells with fewer unwanted side effects.
Blackwell says that when got the news three weeks ago that she had been nominated to the annual list she was afraid to tell anyone.
“I got an email saying, ‘Congratulations, you’ve been nominated. We’d like you to come to New York for a gala.’ It seemed so nonchalant, I thought it might be fake,” said Blackwell, 44.
Since then, an elaborate invitation arrived in the mail and the honor of appearing as one of the elite 100 in Thursday’s edition of the magazine has registered with Blackwell, who has successfully led two cancer-fighting drugs through the arduous Federal Drug Administration approval process.
“It’s really recognition for me and for Duke and for all the women who participated in the drug trials and waited to get the treatments approved,” she said.
Her nomination as one of the Pioneers listed among the Time 100 – the other categories are Titans, Icons and Leaders – was submitted by Sherry Lansing, former chairman of Paramount Pictures and co-founder of the fundraising organization Stand Up to Cancer. In nominating Blackwell, Lansing said that her mother’s death from cancer 29 years ago motivates her to help find a cure for the disease.
“The brilliant work of Kimberly and scientists like her gives us real hope that we may, at last, be turning the corner in the fight against cancer,” Lansing wrote.
Blackwell grew up in Colorado with a love of horses and attended Duke University as an undergraduate with an eye toward becoming a veterinarian, until a cell biology class “changed my world.”
She also credits a work-study experience assisting women through a National Cancer Institute telephone hot line.
“That’s how I found out how much cancer affects people’s lives,” she said. “I went off to med school knowing I wanted to be a breast cancer doctor.”
Blackwell graduated from Mayo Medical School in Minnesota in 1994 and returned to Duke for residency and fellowship work. Now a professor of medicine at Duke, Blackwell also has been listed by U.S. News and World Report as among the nation’s top 1 percent of physicians in breast oncology.
She said she considers her work a mission “to take care of women facing cancer.”
In February, a drug called T-DM1 that she helped develop and is now marketed as Kadcyla won FDA approval. The groundbreaking treatment pairs a strong chemotherapy drug with a “targeted” drug that delivers cancer treatment directly to the affected cells, sparing healthy ones.
In trials, T-DM1 was shown to be more effective at slowing or stopping the growth of breast cancer cells and creating fewer side effects than traditional treatments, Blackwell said.
She said she has been a critic of the FDA approval process because of the time it takes to get new medications on the market.
“We as a community need to think about how we can accelerate the development of these medicines,” she said.
And she has a special appreciation for drug trial participants.
“Imagine how brave you have to be to be involved in a clinical trial,” Blackwell said. “Facing cancer, every decision you make has a significant impact on your life.”
The clinical trial that led to the smart-bomb drug ran from 2009 to 2011, she said, and the results were published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Blackwell said she doesn’t know Lansing personally, but hopes to meet her at the Time 100 gala planned for Tuesday at New York’s Lincoln Center.
And, she said, seeing her picture in Time is sure to raise her status with her two sons, Owen, 10, and Mason, 8.
“They finally realize what I do is really important,” she said.