For Jeremy Kratz, MD, pushing cancer care and research forward is much more than an academic pursuit. It’s personal.
As a young child, Kratz saw his own mother diagnosed with ovarian cancer and undergo treatment for the disease. Even at age 3, he experienced those feelings of uncertainty that frequently accompany a cancer diagnosis.
“Luckily, my mom survived, but the experience left an impression on me,” he said. “I knew early on that treating cancer was going to be an interest of mine, and something I wanted to pursue as a career.”
That motivation eventually carried him to the University of Michigan for undergraduate and medical school, and later the University of Wisconsin in 2015 for an internal medicine residency, followed by a fellowship in oncology.
During this time, he was one of a handful of fellows in the United States to win a prestigious Doris Duke Physician Scientist Fellowship. He later received a Young Investigator Award from the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s Conquer Cancer Foundation.
Now, several years after first stepping foot on the UW campus, Kratz has officially joined the faculty of the UW Carbone Cancer Center as an oncologist who specializes in treating gastrointestinal cancers, including cancers of the liver and pancreas. They’re frequently difficult to treat cancers, especially in advanced stages, but Kratz says being able to work with a multidisciplinary care team at UW, from radiologists to radiation oncologists, allows him to pursue treatment strategies tailored to each patient’s unique needs.
“With GI cancers, we have such an opportunity to be creative and think outside the box,” he said. “We can really interface and be the quarterbacks for that interdisciplinary care that pushes the boundaries of what we can do and works towards the possibility of a cure.”
That attitude carries over to his work in the lab. Working out of a new space in the Center for Human Genomics and Precision Medicine, Kratz also conducts translational and clinical research aimed at understanding why some GI tumors are resistant to certain targeted cancer therapies. “If we know where that resistance develops, we can potentially overcome it and provide better treatment options for our patients,” he said.
To conduct this research – and better predict a drug’s response – Kratz develops patient derived cancer organoids. These are 3D models, derived from real patient cells, which effectively mimic how certain cancers behave in the body.
“Here at UW, we have the ability to derive a living culture of these advanced cancers,” Kratz said. “In collaboration with our biomedical engineers and other campus researchers, we can really start to model these cancers in a way we previously never thought possible.”
Using these tiny cancer models, researchers can test out various therapies in the lab and measure their response using a variety of tools. And so far, that’s opening up a wealth of possibilities in GI cancer care and beyond.
“Right now, we’re doing an active drug screening, looking at 800 combinations of therapies in development across all cancer types,” Kratz said. “We’re excited about the hits from that screen, because they could pave the way for new early phase clinical trials.”
To that end, Kratz has joined UW Carbone’s Cancer Therapy Discovery and Development initiative, which seeks to translate laboratory science into first-in-human clinical trials. He also works with the Precision Medicine Molecular Tumor Board as it seeks to chart and understand new molecular subtypes of cancer.
But it’s arguably his work with veterans that he’s most proud of. In addition to being a staff physician at the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital, Kratz leads precision applications in GI oncology through the VA’s National Precision Oncology Program, serving on the VA’s National Precision Oncology Program’s monthly tumor board. That’s allowed him to help to shape treatment strategies for veterans across the country, while also helping to build UW’s knowledge and understanding of both common and rare molecular subtypes of different GI cancers.
“If you think about liver cancer, for example, it can be very challenging to understand or profile,” Kratz said. “Through this program, we have access to any veteran throughout the country that’s undergone molecular profiling for, say, an advanced liver cancer. So that information is extremely valuable as we start to map out these distinct subtypes.”
So whether it’s treating a patient in the clinic, testing a new model in the lab or helping determine the best course of treatment for a veteran, it’s clear that settling for the status quo isn’t good enough for Kratz. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“If we set our line at the average, we’re not doing our jobs,” he said. “The fear and uncertainty of a new cancer diagnosis is something that calls us to something greater, and it’s also something that really fuels our interests and our efforts to improve the lives of cancer patients here at UW.”