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Messersmith will oversee cancer care at all UCHealth locations with a focus on expanding advanced treatments and clinical trials.

Wells Messersmith, MD, Named CMO of Oncology Services at UCHealth

The CU Cancer Center leader also was named associate director for clinical services at the cancer center.

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Written by Cancer Center on January 27, 2022

University of Colorado (CU) Cancer Center leader Wells Messersmith, MD, has been named chief medical officer of oncology services at UCHealth. In this new role, Messersmith will oversee cancer care at all UCHealth locations with a focus on expanding advanced treatments and the clinical trials UCHealth offers in partnership with the CU Cancer Center.

Messersmith also was recently named associate director for clinical services at the CU Cancer Center; he previously served as associate director of translational research. He will continue to hold his position as the division head for medical oncology.

A graduate of Harvard Medical School and Johns Hopkins oncology fellowship, Messersmith joined CU School of Medicine and UCHealth in 2007. Since then, he and the team have developed multi-disciplinary clinics, systemwide retreats, and specialty satellite clinics, helping the GI cancer program grow 15-fold.

His research group is focused on using a personalized approach in developing new anticancer drugs for GI cancers. In particular, the lab uses a novel colorectal and pancreatic laboratory models whereby tumor tissue is obtained from the operating room and then tested with novel anti-cancer agents. Messersmith has served as principle investigator of more than 80 clinical trials, including more than 20 first-in-human agents with an emphasis on cancer cell signaling and immunotherapy.  

We spoke with Messersmith about his journey into medicine and his new role.

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What made you want to go to medical school?

I thought I was going to be a PhD in biology or biochemistry. I just happened to take enough courses to qualify for medical school, and I said, “I'll just take the MCAT entrance exam to keep my options open.” I shadowed various doctors during my undergraduate years and decided that I loved the intersection between science and taking care of people, so I chose medical school.

Why did you decide to focus on cancer specifically?

I had actually applied to a fellowship in general medicine, then I did a rotation in GI cancer when I was a medicine resident, and I just fell in love with it. I love the multidisciplinary aspects and the impact you have on people’s lives. An oncologist is really a primary care doctor, but for a cancer patient. You're responsible for everything; you're not just focused on one organ or problem. And you’re alongside someone during some of the toughest things they’ll go through. It’s often challenging, but I also find it really rewarding.

I’ve also found that because of my research emphasis, I always have a sense of optimism and hope. You can see what’s coming down the pike with new advances in detection and treatment, and there have been such exciting changes in cancer care. It helps keep you balanced, so that you can keep that empathy and that compassion with patient care.

What is the focus of your research?

I look at tumor samples and tumor models to figure out which investigational therapies will work and which won’t, and how we can personalize these therapies. I’m essentially doing clinical trials in the lab prior to doing a clinical trial in humans, looking for effective combinations and markers of drug susceptibility.

I also do a fair number of phase I trials, or first-in-human studies. That's been a real pleasure for me, because we’ve gone from developing what we call cytotoxic drugs, which are basically poison drugs — they kill dividing cells, and you lose your hair, and your blood counts go down — to studying immune therapies that are much less toxic to people outside of overstimulating the immune system. That has been wonderful to see. The cost/benefit proposition for patients is so much higher than it used to be, since modern drugs are often less toxic and more efficacious.

What brought you to the University of Colorado Cancer Center?

I came here because I loved the idea of trying to build a program. Back in 2007, there really wasn’t much of a specialized GI cancer program in medical oncology. I was recruited out here to build one, and it’s been amazing to see how it grew. Together with multiple other specialties, we were able to create multidisciplinary clinics and really increase our efforts in terms of clinical trials and options for patients. When I first got here, it was sad to see that so many people from Denver had to travel to other cities to get expert cancer care. But nowadays, you don't have to leave Colorado to get access to cutting-edge trials, multidisciplinary care, and highly specialized, expert care. That’s important, because it’s really difficult to leave your family or support system to get care in a different city.

Do you have any personal experiences with cancer?

My brother was diagnosed with leukemia after I moved to Denver. Having a family member go through a bone marrow transplant really teaches you what the experience is like on the other side. That got me even more interested in what the patient and their family go through, and the challenges they deal with. Fortunately, my brother was cured, but it was a long, difficult road for him. I think that made me a more empathetic physician, because you see what it’s like for the patient and family.

What are you most excited about in your new role at UCHealth?

My big-picture view is that people across the Rocky Mountain region should have access to top-quality care, yet get as much of that care as they can close to home. That includes specialization, multidisciplinary care, and access to clinical trials. We can’t do all three of those at every community clinic, but my job is to look at how we can integrate our care so that patients have access to these things, and yet do as much locally as we can.

We have satellite centers in Lone Tree, Cherry Creek, and Highlands Ranch, so we can tell patients, “Why don’t you go to your home clinic and get four months of chemotherapy, then come back for your highly specialized surgery?” Increasingly, we can even perform complex cancer surgeries at Highlands Ranch. At these smaller clinics, everyone knows each other by name; you’re always being seen by the same people. That community feel is highly valued by patients. At the same time, the physicians, patients, and community have access to this large academic medical machine for those episodes of care that must be specialized, or even just to ask advice. It’s the best of both worlds.