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Fighting Bench to Bedside for New Lung Cancer Treatments

photo of Sonam Puri MD
Sonam Puri, MD

Sonam Puri, MD
Physician Scientist at Huntsman Cancer Institute
Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Utah

"My 5 is for my grandmother. She was a very strong lady and was the backbone of our family. When I joined medical school, she told me about a breast lump that turned out to be early-stage breast cancer. She was ultimately cured with surgery, but the journey through the diagnosis and treatment was hard for her, which permanently lowered her morale. Her cancer diagnosis also had a significant impact on our family, which made me realize how deeply cancer changes the lives of patients and the lives of people taking care of them."

—Sonam Puri

Sonam Puri gets up every day to care for patients with lung cancer. Then, she carves out time to work with other researchers at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) to tackle why and how cancer develops in small cell and non-small cell lung cancer patients.

Coming from a family of physicians, Puri completed her medical school training in her home country, India, then completed her residency at the University of Connecticut, followed by fellowship training in hematology and medical oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida.

She credits her research focus on small cell lung cancer to her mentor, Trudy Oliver, PhD, at HCI. Small cell lung cancer is an extremely aggressive cancer with a poor response to treatment. This subtype of lung cancer is often diagnosed at stage IV, when cancer has spread throughout the body. "Our research focuses on identifying different targets of therapy for patients with small cell lung cancer," says Puri.

"What attracted me to apply to the 5 For The Fight Fellowship is the concept behind the organization. A diagnosis of cancer has a widespread impact on patients and their loved ones," she says. "People are donating $5 for somebody who has either been touched by or is battling cancer, and knowing that these single $5 donations ultimately add up to a sizeable amount just reflects how many lives are affected by cancer at large."

Puri says she became an oncologist to be a "guiding light" for her patients battling cancer.

"I try to understand what is important for each of my patients as individuals," she says. "Sometimes little things—like being able to make it to their daughter’s wedding or graduation, or not having nausea, not being in pain—are far more important for the patients than other parameters that we, as physicians, tend to focus on."

The courage of her patients battling cancer inspires and motivates her research as well.

"I can achieve success only if I have my patients’ priorities as my priorities. I am always looking for solutions in the lab and trying to bring those back to my patients," she says. "Research is not a one-way street. You have to bring it back full circle, from bedside to bench and back to bedside again."

Advice for Young Scientists
"My advice to all the young aspiring scientists is that it’s a long journey to achieve your ultimate goals, but it’s important to cherish every small little progress along the way. Once you start enjoying what you do, it’s not merely a job. It is your passion and it becomes a part of you. And with everything that you do, you’re helping make a difference, whether big or small, in someone’s life. So it’s all worth it in the end!"

What She Would Tell Patients
"I just want my patients to know that we notice how incredibly challenging the battle against cancer is for them and their families. This motivates us daily to work harder to improve their care and outcomes."