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How Jai Patel Got Involved with Cancer Pharmacology & Pharmacogenomics

There are so many different types of careers within the field of pharmacy—from research and drug development to pharmacy informatics! To highlight some of the more unique career settings in the industry, we’re introducing a new page on our website—Novel Pharmacy Practice Settings—where you can explore these unique career pathways.

In addition to learning more about unique pathways on our new webpage, we’ll also be featuring pharmacists who work in these unique settings on our blog. Today we’re excited to spotlight Jai Patel, Pharm.D., BCOP, CPP!

Dr. Patel is the Chair of Cancer Pharmacology & Pharmacogenomics at Levine Cancer Institute in Charlotte, North Carolina. The following is a look into how Jai got involved with cancer pharmacology and pharmacogenomics.

Please describe your novel practice setting. What makes your career path unique?

My current position at Levine Cancer Institute is Chair of our Department of Cancer Pharmacology & Pharmacogenomics and an associate professor in our division of Hematology/Oncology. Originally, I was hired at Levine in 2013 as Chief of Pharmacology Research and was promoted to chair of the department in early 2020. My practice setting is a bit novel in that it’s primarily focused on investigator-initiated research, meaning research that we propose, develop, and execute. Most of the research that we do is with pharmacogenomics, so looking at the genetic basis for drug response and drug toxicity. That’s really been an area over the last decade that has been expanding a lot regarding precision medicine research and looking at the clinical implementation of pharmacogenomics testing to improve medication management. 

What led you to this career path? What steps did you take?

One of the key things for me early on was identifying a champion—a mentor who could help guide me and reflect on what I see myself doing. I found that early on in pharmacy school and worked to establish an oncology pharmacogenomics fellowship at UNC. The pharmacogenomics fellowship wasn’t available, but I approached my mentor and said, ‘this is what I want to practice. I have the necessary ambition and drive.’ I had to convince him I was a good investment. Just because something doesn’t exist doesn’t mean it isn’t possible. That’s what will set you apart from others when trying to build something new. Health care is always changing. Position yourself to be at the forefront of medicine. 

What does a typical workday look like for you?

I do have a lot of meetings. I spend a lot more time in meetings than most other pharmacists just because the nature of research is so collaborative. I work with so many pharmacists and physicians, scientists, statisticians, protocol coordinators, and data managers. We’ve got a lot of meetings scheduled every day to keep things moving forward. Otherwise, there’s time for data analysis, data collection for studies, manuscript writing, and grant writing—I have to do a lot of scientific writing. I also read a lot of literature; it’s the first thing I do every morning when I get in, and I try to get in before others for some ‘quiet time’ before things really start to get crazy, so around 6:30 to 6:45 a.m. Being in research, things are always changing, and you’re always looking for ways to fill a gap in the literature or improve how medicine is being practiced. Especially within oncology, there’s just such a vast amount of information. I’m constantly learning every day, so I read a lot to help me generate new ideas for research. And then there are the presentations and conferences, and I take about five or six students per year on rotation. I do about 50 percent research, 25 percent direct patient care, 15 percent teaching, and 10 percent administrative.

Describe the most exciting or rewarding aspect of your novel practice role.

The most rewarding part is really being able to positively impact patient care, whether that’s directly or indirectly, including pharmacogenomics testing or helping to manage cancer-related symptoms through my clinic time in palliative medicine or simply talking to patients. To spend time with the patient and just talk to them about their treatment and what’s going on outside of cancer care, including their family or friends or traveling, etc. It’s also really rewarding when we’ve made progress in cancer research that directly benefits patients, which is the whole reason that I got into this field. Selfishly, it’s also really fun to present your research findings at conferences and publish them in peer-reviewed journals.

Describe the most challenging aspect of your role.

I was put into this role fairly early in my career. I graduated in 2011 and finished my fellowship in 2013, then immediately started here. Levine was a brand-new cancer institute at that time, and the building had been up for one year. They were really trying to figure out how they wanted to expand and how they wanted to build this brand-new cancer institute, and they knew they wanted to have pharmacogenomics and pharmacology research to be a part of that. But it was a lot of pressure to figure out how to build a pharmacogenomics and pharmacology research program pretty soon after my fellowship training. I had some great colleagues and mentors that helped along the way.

How can someone learn more about this unique practice setting and the career opportunities it presents for pharmacists?

Luckily, there is a lot more information regarding pharmacogenomics programs than there was ten years ago. One piece of advice for other folks looking to find a similar opportunity is to look out there on social media like LinkedIn. Connect with folks who have pharmacogenomics positions or are doing pharmacogenomics and reach out to them to see if they can spare 15 to 30 minutes to share with you what they do and why they do it. The best way to learn is to network and connect with people who are already doing what you’re interested in and who can help you achieve what you’re most passionate about. 

What advice would you give to a current student pharmacist who is interested in pursuing a similar type of practice role in the future?

Start networking early. I can’t say enough about how important networking is. I wouldn’t be here today without it. Students can shadow professionals and interview professors and professionals. Because I was interested in oncology, I shadowed my oncology professor. Then I developed an interest in pharmacogenomics, so I sought a pharmacogenomics rotation and ultimately convinced the preceptors to take me as a fellow after graduation. 

What general advice would you give to a high school or college student who is interested in pursuing a pharmacy career?

When I was in high school, I worked in retail pharmacy. I knew as a freshman in college that I wanted to be a retail pharmacist. But halfway through pharmacy school, I realized all of the other opportunities for pharmacists, whether that be in retail, clinical, regulatory, or research. High schoolers nowadays have an advantage with social media to reach out and develop their own interests, seek advice or input from professionals. There are so many people who want to help; you just have to take that leap of faith. You don’t have to know exactly what you want to do when you grow up. This is the time of your life where you should be learning about various opportunities and find what excites you.

Share a brief story about a time you had a positive impact on a patient, population, or community in your role as a pharmacist.

I’ll talk about implementing pharmacogenetic testing. When I started here at Levine, there was no pharmacogenetic testing being done here. We set up a collaboration with our genomics lab, which was already established. They had never done pharmacogenomics testing before, but they had done genetic testing for other areas. So, it took a while to set up the infrastructure to build new assays and tests that we could look at specific genes for specific drugs. We then identified where there were opportunities to implement testing. The first test we performed was for an antifungal drug that we use routinely after patients undergo a stem cell transplant. Based on the literature, we knew that there was genetically a third of the population that rapidly metabolized this drug, so they were still at risk of developing a fungal infection. So, we developed an assay to test for that particular gene to identify who would be expected to genetically metabolize this drug very quickly. And we wanted to know that upfront before we actually started the medication. We quickly saw that we could normalize drug exposure and ensure that all patients were receiving the appropriate dose based on their genetics. We’ve been able to do 700-800 transplants, and we’ve prevented severe fungal infections.  

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