High School Biology Lesson Inspires Decades-long Career as Bone Marrow Transplanter

By Corrie Pellegrino - February 01, 2023


Women faculty at Moffitt Cancer Center come from different backgrounds and cultures around the globe. Their areas of research and clinical care span the entire cancer continuum, including clinical science and trials, basic science, epidemiology, health outcomes, medical physics and more. Community involvement, mentorship and inclusion among faculty are foundational, and we celebrate the essential roles women play in making a difference at the cancer center and in society.

Meet Lia Perez, MD
Lia Perez, MD, is a hematologist and researcher who is an expert in allogeneic hematopoietic stem cell transplantation. She is a senior member of Moffitt Cancer Center’s Blood and Marrow Transplant and Cellular Immunotherapy Program and a professor in the University of South Florida College of Medicine’s Department of Oncologic Sciences. Perez graduated from the University of Buenos Aires School of Medicine in 1991. She completed her internship and residency both in Argentina and New York City. She completed a fellowship in hematology and medical oncology at Yale University and a fellowship in hematopoietic stem cell transplantation at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Perez cares for patients in need of bone marrow transplants from donors and has been at Moffitt for almost 20 years.

What made you want to go into medicine/research as a career?
When I was a teenager, I wanted to be an architect. I like buildings and utilization of living spaces. Then one day in high school, my biology teacher drew a cell on the blackboard. She showed us everything inside the cell and how it works. And pretty much it’s a network — like architecture — and at the same time is functional, too. I thought it was even more interesting than a building, and I wanted to decipher how it works like scientists do.

Then my parents, who are also physicians, inspired me, explaining that medicine is a great venue to understand how the human body works and also a means to help others in need. I understood then that medicine is a broad field that can open your horizons to do anything you want in life — from clinical care to science to education and/or administration. So that’s how I ended up in medicine.

What are your research and clinical interests?
What I do here at Moffitt clinically is allogenic bone marrow transplants. Researchwise, my main interest is in graft-versus-host disease, where the donor attacks the transplant recipient’s organs. I have done many years of work in the laboratory to understand how this process works, which allows me to design clinical trials to test new medicines and provides another perspective when I treat patients.

What are you working on right now that you are most excited about?
I get very excited about taking care of patients as I can make a difference in their lives or even just be there for them in moments of despair. I also understand the precious need for advanced medicine. I continue to be involved in research designing clinical trials to prevent or treat transplant complications, while monitoring patients enrolled in trials.

What would you say is one of the biggest challenges in your field?
In my 20 years of being a transplanter, we have made this treatment option accessible to a lot more patients beyond the prior age limits that had been set due to transplant complications. So we now can provide more access to transplants than when I started my hematology career. Now we have more supportive care, medicines and so forth. Where the challenge comes, after the successful transplant, is trying to improve the quality of life for our patients.

Even those patients whom the medical team considers a success report fatigue and a lot of limitations mentally and physically. Life is not static, and recovery is a long process. My hope is that if we can minimize the impact of all the comorbidities in the long run, our impact will be greater.

What do you see as the future of cancer screening and prevention efforts?
My mother used to run a vaccination program in Argentina. So my mom is all about prevention and vaccines. She used to say, “I hate disease, and I don’t want to see people sick when it can be avoided.” So prevention I think is where we need to put more effort.

Of course, there’s a limit to what we can do. Not all the cancers are preventable, but screening with annual exams helps. In my field, most of those cases are not exposure related. So there’s not that much to blame. But it comes back to the science — we’re learning a lot, and we have made a lot of progress, but if we knew how all these cancers develop and what causes them, we could help more.

Who is the person who encouraged you the most in your career and how did they impact you?
When I was a medical student, I did a rotation at Yale University. One day I saw this sign in the hospital hallway that said “Bone Marrow Transplant Unit.” I had no idea what this meant. So I contacted the student dean and was put in touch with Dr. Joel Rappeport. He was not very interested in having a student for just one week — he even challenged me with what I could possibly learn from him in such a short time. My answer was: “I just want to see what you do with your life this week.” This was enough to connect us for the rest of our professional careers. This was a crucial week for the life of a transplant patient, when chemotherapy was given and I participated in harvesting bone marrow in the OR from the patient’s relative — my first time doing this.

I have been lucky in my mentee experience. I always found the right mentor who gave me the guidance I needed while I trained at Yale (Drs. Nancy Berliner and Diane Krause) and at Memorial Sloan Kettering (Drs. Richard O’Reilly, Malcolm Moore and Marcel van den Brink). I was fortunate to be part of Moffitt’s transplant team and gained valuable experience from Drs. Claudio Anasetti and William Dalton.

What advice would you give a younger colleague about balancing work responsibilities, personal responsibilities and self-care?
As you age and gain knowledge and confidence, you cope with things differently. The pressure is always there, obviously. You try to do your best, but never let yourself get to a point where you’re frustrated. You need to learn how to let go and just be happy with yourself so you can make others happy, too. If you are in that state, everything else goes more smoothly in your professional and personal life. You just have to find the right balance in your life — easier said than done. I love to work. I love what I do here. But what defines me is my family and friends who contribute so much to who I am so I can help others.

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Corrie Pellegrino Senior Managing Editor 813-745-0833 More Articles


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