War, Surgery, and Cancer Vaccines: Meet San Antonio’s George Peoples

Xconomy Texas — 

San Antonio — [Corrected 11:57 a.m. See below.] Cancer surgeries are long, arduous, and require detailed planning. There are always surprises. One measure of a surgeon is how he or she handles the unexpected. Just ask George Peoples—he’s operated on more than a thousand tumors.

“You’re going to deal with certain anatomical structures that most people will avoid like the plague,” says Peoples (pictured), the former chief surgeon at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, who spent 30 years in the U.S. Army. “The liver just bleeds. Once you start poking the skunk, you know… now all of a sudden you got bleeding. How are you going to deal with it?”

Peoples has experience in trauma, too: As a part of the 274th Forward Surgical Team, he led the first group of U.S. surgeons into war in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. He’s been deployed seven times during his career, in war and on humanitarian missions.

Removing a tumor is actually similar to operating on a trauma victim, Peoples says. The better you plan, and the more scientifically you think about your work, the better the result.

Peoples ended his work as a surgeon and retired from the military in 2014, and he’s since taken on an entirely different mission. As an oncology researcher—work that he’s done on the side since he left medical school—he’s now dedicated himself full-time to developing cancer vaccines. Two companies, Galena Biopharma (NASDAQ: GALE) and Elios Therapeutics, have experimental vaccines based on Peoples’ research.

The cancer vaccine work is proving to be as much a challenge as he’s ever had—a point of both pride and pain. But it’s also helping him earn wider recognition.

Earlier this month, Peoples was named the winner of the BioMed SA 2016 Award for Innovation in Healthcare and Bioscience. Previously known as Julio Palmaz Award, it has been accepted in years past by scientists such as Robert Langer of MIT and Nobel Prize winner W.E. Moerner of Stanford University.

In awarding Peoples, the San Antonio life sciences advocacy organization specifically noted Peoples’ “groundbreaking work” in cancer immunotherapy, as well as his surgical and wartime achievements.

Yet less than a week after the award announcement, Peoples was reminded how hard it is to turn his oncology work into a vaccine that benefits cancer patients. Galena, the company testing a cancer vaccine he helped develop, NeuVax, decided to end a Phase 3 trial for good after disappointing results.

“It’s still another negative,” Peoples says, referring the longstanding difficulty researchers have had in finding success with cancer vaccines. “It’s very frustrating, to say the least.”

Peoples is working through the disappointment the way he usually does: by asking questions. What’s working, and what’s not? What do I know, and what do I need to figure out? What are the next steps?

It’s a practice he honed throughout his life in the operating room and on the battlefield.

From ‘Bama to Brooke Army

Originally from Alabama, Peoples received his medical degree from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in 1988 after graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point. He interned at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and spent most of his surgical training at Harvard Medical School’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, following it with a brief stint at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. That ended in 1998, when he joined the staff of Walter Reed, where he eventually became the chief of surgical oncology in 2001.

The military transferred Peoples in 2006 to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, which calls itself the largest military healthcare organization under the Department of Defense. Peoples retained his position as surgical oncology chief, while also taking on leadership roles in committees on cancer.

“Technically speaking, he is the single best surgeon I have ever known,” wrote Major John Barry, chief resident at Brooke Army Medical Center, in a letter of recommendation for Peoples to receive the BioMed SA award. “Unflappable, always steady in hand and in thought, he makes surgery look easy.”

Peoples applied his scientific training in battle as well. In Afghanistan and Iraq, even as war raged around him, Peoples focused on how his team of doctors, nurses, and medics treated the wounded. His group was part of a mobile unit that … Next Page »

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