Naperville oncologist Dr. Patrick Stiff says it's his personality as an "excitement junkie" that led him to a career in cancer research instead of, say, internal medicine.
Stiff likes to explore frontiers -- both in his career at Loyola University's Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center in Maywood and in his free time journeying to far-off destinations on several continents.
At work, Stiff is an award-winning oncologist, hematologist and professor who developed a simpler way to freeze stem cells before transplant -- a procedure that has helped cure more leukemia, lymphoma and cancer patients.
And while his penchant for climbing mountains or driving dog sledding teams draw amazement from his family and colleagues, his achievements as a doctor have earned him a bigger award. Stiff, 66, is this year's recipient of the Stritch Medal, the highest honor given by the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.
His daughter Stephanie Stiff, who has continued in the family business as a nurse practitioner at Loyola, notes her father's progression from an orderly pushing wheelchairs to a "world-renowned physician" who's not done yet.
"He's got such a strong work ethic," his daughter said during a visit to her father's lab, where his team follows the stem cell-freezing technique he created in 1981 to preserve donor cells until they are a perfect match for a patient. "He has this drive to continue to challenge obstacles."
Growing up in Toledo, Ohio, Stiff observed the career of his father, an internist.
By age 50, his father was bored with high blood pressure patients and common conditions. Stiff related to that; he wanted to make medicine his field, as did two of his brothers, but he craved something more than the ordinary.
"I guess I'm an excitement junkie," he said.
So he chose a field on the border of research and patient care, where he could quickly bridge both worlds by developing cures to deadly diseases not already treatable with dozens of medications. He focused on hematology, the study of the blood, and oncology, the study of cancer, to find "the shortest distance between the lab and the patient."
His first breakthrough came when it looked like his research at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York was about to go off the rails.
He wanted to test a new concoction that could be used to freeze cells. His plan was to take donor cells, mix them with the preparation solution and use liquid nitrogen in a machine to freeze them.
"Here I am, I've taken a year off just to do research and I'm ready to start my research," he said, "and the machine is broken."
So why not use a regular medical freezer, he thought.
He gave it a whirl, and it worked. In clinical trials it worked for patients, too. A broken machine and his backup plan had just cut a roughly five-hour freezing process to a few minutes, while making it easier and cheaper, too.
A liquid nitrogen freezing machine costs about $200 a week -- or $10,400 a year -- while a regular medical freezer set to negative-82 degrees costs roughly $5,000 and lasts 20 years, he said. The freezing method Stiff helped develop now is one of two approved by the FDA for cells awaiting transplant.
"He is someone who I think is very dedicated to improving the field, not just participating in it," said Dr. Stephanie Tsai, a fellow Loyola doctor focused on transplants and leukemia care who is among junior faculty members Stiff mentors. "He's very interested in improving outcomes all the time."
Curing more patients
Stiff has helped more patients be cured through his work with stem cells, which are immature cells found in bone marrow or in umbilical cord blood that can grow into various types of cells needed to bring about cancer cures. When patients undergo chemotherapy for leukemia or lymphoma, the treatment kills their immune system cells. But receiving a transplant of stem cells from a donor helps the patient's body regrow the immune cells it needs.
When Stiff started his career in 1980, he said donors with perfectly matching characteristics to give the stem cells from their bone marrow could be found for about 20 percent to 30 percent of patients.
He recently helped develop a stem cell transplant method that doesn't require a perfect match, but a two-thirds match, making it much more likely a donor can be found for each patient in need.
The method starts with stem cells from umbilical cords donated after babies are born. The problem with umbilical blood, though, is it comes in such small amounts -- only roughly 2 ounces per cord -- there's not enough to provide the stem cells an adult patient needs.
So Stiff helped come up with a way to grow the umbilical cord stem cells in a lab until they multiply into a quantity sufficient for an adult in need of a transplant.
"It looks incredibly promising and could revolutionize the way we do transplants over the next 10 years," Stiff said.
He and his daughter both call this development the most significant accomplishment of his career, a career entering its final chapters.
"Right now, pretty much anybody who needs a bone-marrow transplant from a donor can get one," Stiff said, "because of the technology that we have developed."