An essential component of the UF Health Cancer Center’s mission is conducting clinical research that directly impacts patients by delivering new and promising cancer treatments. The Cancer Center’s innovative clinical research, funded in part through the state of Florida, includes developing and implementing cancer clinical trials that bring opportunities for patients in Florida and beyond to access new cancer treatments. This leading-edge research ensures the Cancer Center provides patient care that meets the needs of the rural and diverse population it serves and contributes to advancing scientific progress for future patients.
Bently Doonan, M.D., M.S., an assistant professor in the division of hematology and oncology in the UF College of Medicine, is one of the clinical investigators at the Cancer Center who has dedicated his career to developing better treatments for patients with cancer, particularly those with skin and brain cancers.
Doonan earned his master of biomedical sciences degree with a specialization in cancer immunology and his medical degree from the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. Given his expertise and distinction, he was recruited to join the UF faculty and UF Health Cancer Center after completing his internal medicine residency and hematology and oncology fellowship at UF.
His clinical and research interests focus on ways to enhance a patient’s own immune system to better fight cancer. Skin cancer and cancers that have spread to the brain present opportunities to harness the immune system for control or a cure.
“As a physician, my goal is to improve the lives of patients with advanced skin cancer and brain metastases through novel treatment approaches using immunotherapy to minimize toxicity and maximize potential benefits,” Doonan said. “My goal is to have safe and effective therapies available for patients at all stages of their cancer journey, from early diagnosis and surveillance through late progressive brain metastases.”
Melanoma, one of the cancers that Doonan specializes in, continues to present a major burden for Floridians. Residents of the Cancer Center’s catchment area, comprising two dozen counties in central and northern Florida, have a high incidence of melanoma, and the state of Florida ranks second nationally in melanoma diagnoses. In addition, melanoma is expected to be the second most common malignancy by 2040, with a growing incidence in the aging population.
Doonan’s research focuses on the immediate design and development of clinical trials for the patients he treats and discovery research that will fuel the treatments of tomorrow. He is developing therapies for all stages of disease, from enhanced methods of early diagnosis of melanoma through treatment of late-stage brain metastases.
“The best treatment for melanoma is early detection and resection through surgery,” Doonan said. “Unfortunately, with the growing population and growing incidence of melanoma, it will become increasingly difficult for us to diagnose patients at the earliest point in their disease. To overcome this, we are leveraging a novel noninvasive diagnostic method and artificial intelligence to improve the speed and bandwidth we have to rapidly diagnose these cancers.”
Doonan and his collaborators are developing a noninvasive method to diagnose melanoma that does not require a skin biopsy, but rather uses the smell of melanoma. The goal of this effort is to aid in the early diagnosis of melanoma on a large scale and get more patients to immediate surgical management.
His research also includes developing a clinical trial using a personalized nanoparticle vaccine in patients with melanoma who develop resistance to immune checkpoint inhibitors, a type of immunotherapy treatment currently approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Through a collaboration with a national melanoma working group, he is also developing a personalized approach to additional immunotherapy selection through monitoring levels of tumor indicators in the blood. Additionally, he is developing a clinical trial using a novel small molecule inhibitor in combination with immunotherapy in patients whose cancer has spread to the brain.
“Our goal is to make the University of Florida Cancer Center stand out as a destination for all patients with these advanced cancers and provide them with clinical trials and therapies developed specifically for their disease.”Bently Doonan, M.D., Assistant Professor, Division of Hematology and Oncology, University of Florida College of Medicine
Support from the state of Florida through the Casey DeSantis Cancer Research Act (Fla. Stat. § 381.915) has been critical to the Cancer Center’s recruitment and retention of rising stars in cancer clinical research. Doonan is an example of a cancer physician and scientist who is developing and bringing forward new therapies for patients in Florida and beyond. The program was established to enhance the quality and competitiveness of cancer care in Florida, further a statewide biomedical research strategy, and capitalize on the educational opportunities. Through this program, the state provides funding to Florida cancer centers that have achieved designation from the National Cancer Institute and those working to achieve the designation.