National Leader in Bone Marrow Transplants
Peter Westervelt, MD, PhD, Chief of Bone Marrow Transplantation at Washington University School of Medicine and Co-Director of the Hematopoietic Development and Malignancy Program at Siteman Cancer Center, has played a pivotal role in the program’s success, helping it become one of the largest in the world. The team at Siteman performs more than 400 bone marrow transplants (BMTs) a year, a number matched by few other programs. As a medical oncologist, Dr. Westervelt has dedicated most of his career to treating leukemia and other hematologic malignancies.
Much of Dr. Westervelt’s efforts are aimed at discovering new therapies for treating leukemia. Through Washington University’s Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) in Leukemia, a translational grant program aimed at bridging the gap between lab and clinic, he is able to see this through. “When I was in school, the genetic basis of cancer was just coming to the forefront. That concept really intrigued me, and led me to pursue hematology-oncology,” says Dr. Westervelt.
Dr. Westervelt received his medical degree, combined with a PhD in molecular biology, from Washington University School of Medicine in 1992. He completed a medicine residency at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and a hematology-oncology fellowship at Washington University School of Medicine, including post-doctoral work in the laboratory of Timothy Ley, MD, studying the genetic basis of acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) in a mouse model of the disease. Originally from Maine, Dr. Westervelt returned home to New England for a position at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where he soon became Director of the Bone Marrow Transplantation Program.
In 2006, Dr. Westervelt returned to Washington University and Siteman Cancer Center, to run its BMT program. “It’s fantastic to be back here, to the place I received my medical training. While away, I gained an even greater appreciation of just how special this place is and how innovative the work being done here at Washington University and Siteman really is,” he says.
Focused on Curative Intent
During his time at Siteman Cancer Center, Dr. Westervelt has watched the number of BMT procedures performed grow dramatically — from 30 a year to more than 400. The growth of the program can be attributed to the hundreds of successful BMT procedures, as well as the commitment of Siteman’s leukemia care team, which includes Dr. Westervelt. But he gives most of the credit to his colleagues, particularly John DiPersio, MD, PhD, Washington University’s Chief of Oncology and Deputy Director at Siteman Cancer Center.
“One of the most important factors of the BMT program’s success is Dr. DiPersio. He built this program from modest beginnings. I have had the good fortune of having a front row seat for most of that. It has been incredible to watch,” says Dr. Westervelt.
When a leukemia patient is eligible for a bone marrow transplant, the decision is carefully weighed by Dr. Westervelt and the other clinicians at Siteman, as it does involve some risks. However, it can offer the best option for a cure in many cases. And at Siteman, it’s a procedure the team knows well and have seen much success with. “We’ve been doing this a long time. It’s the type of thing where experience does matter and the number of transplants we do each year gives that experience,” says Dr. Westervelt.
For a significant number of patients who undergo a BMT procedure at Siteman, many are cured of their disease, going on to lead healthy, productive lives.
Seeing Leukemia in a New Light
Dr. Westervelt and his wife, Donna, have been married for more than 35 years; growing up in the same town in Maine. For someone who has dedicated his career to the treatment of leukemia, his work hit particularly close to home when Donna was diagnosed with leukemia in 2012. After undergoing two bone marrow transplants, both performed by Dr. DiPersio, she has been cancer-free for more than two years.
Dr. Westervelt and Donna have two adult children, Anna and Katie. While both of his daughters live in the Northeast, the family gathers in Maine every summer. It’s a trip he says has even more special meaning now that his wife is well.
“I have a new perspective now having been on the other side of it,” says Dr. Westervelt. “I know the anxiety of waiting for results from blood work, the anxiety of waiting for a transplant, just the uncertainty of it all. In some ways, it’s changed the way I interact with patients. I can relate to them in a much more immediate way.”
He’s also energized about what the future holds for leukemia treatment, which he says is a direct result of the research being conducted at Siteman. “SPORE has allowed the leukemia research here at Washington University and Siteman Cancer Center to flourish,” says Dr. Westervelt. “Research is fundamental to what we do and, alongside patient care, the single most important thing we do.”
If you’d like to read more about the SPORE in Leukemia projects, click here.