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Humble Innovator: Pioneering Cancer Researcher Shares Life Lessons
September 16, 2016

During his 30-year military career, Dr. George Peoples Jr. served as a combat trauma surgeon and a pioneer in the emerging field of cancer immunotherapy. Photo by Joel Spring.

By KEN RODRIGUEZ, Rivard Report

As a surgical oncologist, Dr. George Peoples Jr. removed precisely 4,786 tumors. As a combat surgeon, he saved hundreds of lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a pioneering researcher, he developed four vaccines used to treat breast cancer.

And yet, on a night when he was honored for an astonishing body of innovative work at BioMed SA's Annual Awards dinner, Peoples reflected on patients who did not recover and research that ended abruptly and painfully.

Before a rapt audience of 520 at The Vista at Valero Thursday evening, Peoples recalled a patient with pancreatic cancer, a 67-year-old woman who underwent 10 hours of surgery to remove a mass tumor, then another two hours of reconstructive surgery followed by three-and-a-half weeks in intensive care.

"She died two days before Christmas," Peoples said. "Should I have performed that surgery? Decisions of oncologists are often very difficult. I could justify it. But I knew it was a high-risk procedure with a really low benefit. Would it have been better for her to enjoy her last Christmas with her family?"

Peoples said he learned to seek and value wisdom from surgical oncology, and to appreciate sound judgment over knowledge and to use it to serve his patients.

During a stirring, 20-minute speech, Peoples used slides, video, and personal anecdotes to share other life lessons from his three careers as a surgical oncologist, combat surgeon, and cancer researcher.

After accepting the BioMed SA Award for Innovation in Health Care and Bioscience, Peoples took his audience to Afghanistan and Iraq through color slides which he drew from inside his mobile operating tents. He explained his mission with the 274th Forward Surgical Team or FST as follows:

"The FST is a modern day version of the old Mash unit you may have watched on TV but much more mobile," he said. "It is small. There are only 20 people, four of which are surgeons. We follow a fighting force. When they stop to fight, we stop and set up. We try to stop, set up, and operate in 30 minutes."

As a combat surgeon, Peoples and his team were able to lower the soldier mortality rate from 24%, the historical average at the time, to 10%. He enjoyed a decorated military career before he retired in 2014, earning the Meritorious Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, and two Bronze stars, among other honors.

"This evening was a true celebration," said BioMed SA Founding President Ann Stevens. "Not only of Dr. George Peoples' many extraordinary achievements but also of the spirit of innovation and collaboration that makes San Antonio a hotbed of innovation."

In 1993, Peoples made a discovery many believed could lead to the cure of breast cancer. In a lab at Harvard Medical School, he identified a protein that would be used to successfully treat approximately 100 women in a clinical trial. But this past June, the third trial phase of the NeuVax vaccine was suspended.

"This was a devastating blow to me," Peoples said. From this experience, he learned "perseverance." And so Peoples vows to continue his dogged research to find the next cancer vaccine.

"We all face challenges, and tonight I've shared a couple of mine," he said. "Sometimes the difference between success and failure is persistence."

He paused.

"I leave you with this. Dare mighty things."


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