Army doctor honored for outstanding work

Award: The Jaycees laud a Fulton physician for his advances in developing vaccinations to fight common types of cancer.

January 15, 2001|By Jody K. Vilschick | Jody K. Vilschick,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Imagine the world without cancer. That's what Lt. Col. George E. Peoples of Fulton is trying to accomplish with his cancer vaccines.

Peoples, 38, a surgical oncologist at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, will be recognized as one of Ten Outstanding Young Americans for 2001 by the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce on Jan. 27.

The award is presented annually to outstanding Americans with exceptional achievements who have demonstrated service to humanity.

"Dr. Peoples embodies the Jaycee philosophy - leadership training through community service," says Scott Brown, Maryland Jaycees president. "We are extremely proud to have a nominee of this caliber in Maryland."

"Of course I feel honored and gratified to be recognized," Peoples says. "But now I've got to set out to deserve this award."

His path to discovering and developing vaccines that have proved applicable to a variety of cancers began at a young age. While playing in a junior league football game as a 13-year-old, he broke his collarbone. He remembers being impressed by the orthopedic surgeon who treated him.

"The interaction between me and that physician is what made me think about becoming a doctor," he says.

When he was a junior in Trussville, Ala., a group of cadets from the U.S. Military Academy visited his high school in 1979.

As a top athlete and top student, he stood out from the others and was actively recruited. Although he had always dreamed of attending the University of Alabama's premed program, he also went through the nomination process for West Point and was awarded a four-year scholarship at the military academy.

When he learned that just 2 percent of West Point graduates are given the option of going straight to medical school, he was torn.

"My parents basically told me: `Look, we can't help you decide. The choices are so different, and your life will be so different based on what you choose,'" Peoples says. "The decision was hard enough. Hearing that just made it harder."

Not one to walk away from a challenge, Peoples decided to attend West Point, determined to be among that 2 percent. He was, finishing second in his class of 942 in 1984. He was accepted into the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where he earned his degree in 1988.

At Hopkins, Peoples developed his interest in surgery while under the tutelage of surgeons Keith Lillemoe and John Cameron. He interned at Walter Reed and, in 1989, military officials sent him to Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. The decision was unusual because the military does not usually send interns to outside hospitals.

Says Dr. Robert Osteen, residency director at Brigham and Women's Hospital, "George is easily in the top 10 percent of residents I have seen in this competitive program over the past 25 years."

During his general surgery residency, Peoples pursued his interest in original research and put his energy where he thought it would matter most: cancer research. With cancer incidence on the rise, he recognized that it would probably be the most common killer in the United States by the century's end.

He joined Brigham's Laboratory of Biologic Cancer Therapy, working under the supervision of Dr. Timothy Eberlein. Peoples began to explore the concept of the body's defenses against cancer, building on the work of Dr. Steven Rosenberg, whom he considers to be the father of cancer vaccine research.

While Rosenberg focused on developing a vaccine for melanoma cancers, Peoples focused on the immune response to adenocarcinomas - cancers that affect the breast, ovaries, prostate, lungs and colon - which constitute the majority of the cancers that afflict Americans.

After three years of research and 15 articles in scientific journals, Peoples had discovered the basis of a novel anti-cancer vaccine that was awarded a U.S. patent.

In 1997, the Army assigned Peoples to the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston to further his surgical training and continue his cancer research. While there, he collaborated with Dr. Constantine Ioannides, one of the country's foremost cancer immunologists. That collaboration resulted in the first clinical trial of the cancer vaccines.

When he returned to Walter Reed in 1998, Peoples had established himself clinically as a leader among Army surgeons, performing up to 300 oncologic surgeries a year. Peoples also instructs interns in oncologic surgery.

Supported and encouraged by the Army and the hospital command, Peoples established a basic research laboratory dedicated to the further discovery and development of cancer vaccines and a clinical laboratory committed to testing them in human trials.

Unlike other clinical trials that focused on cancer vaccines as a treatment to cancer, these trials are testing the vaccine strategy as a preventive vaccine, to arrest cancer development and prevent its occurrence.

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