Taking on New Challenges: 8 Questions with Gilles Salles

Lymphoma expert Gilles Salles

Lymphoma Service Chief Gilles Salles

Gilles Salles recently joined Memorial Sloan Kettering as Chief of the Lymphoma Service within the Division of Hematologic Malignancies. Dr. Salles came to MSK after a long career at Claude Bernard University in Lyon, France.

In an interview conducted in early December just before the annual American Society of Hematology (ASH) meeting, where he presented updates from several studies he’s conducted, Dr. Salles spoke about his decision to join MSK, his research, and his plans for the Lymphoma Service.

Why did you decide to come to MSK?

MSK is a fantastic place in terms of clinical care, clinical research, and basic research. There are not many places in the world that have strengths in all three of these areas. There are so many opportunities here to bring talented scientists together with clinicians who can help them deliver their discoveries to patients.

I’ve been successful in my career, and I’ve been able to bring many improvements in lymphoma care to patients. I asked myself, “Should I just continue here in France and then retire in six or eight years, or should I take on a new challenge?” I decided that this kind of opportunity, to be able to interact more with basic scientists and to build upon translational research projects, doesn’t happen very often. That’s why I took the leap.

What was your relationship with MSK before you came here?

I already knew many members of the Lymphoma Service as well as people in other groups at MSK. I’ve been involved in collaborations with them over the years and have met them at conferences. They are a large part of the reason I decided to join MSK — it’s exciting to work with such talented people.

Lymphoma is a blood cancer that starts in the body’s immune system cells. It is one of the most common forms of cancer in adults. Learn more about treatment options for all types of the disease.

What was it like moving to a new continent in the middle of a pandemic?

It was strange. I moved to New York over the summer and started working at MSK in mid-August. I haven’t been in the same room with most of my new colleagues yet. We’ve all been meeting on Zoom.

I studied in the United States for my postdoc about 30 years ago in Boston. And I’ve been to New York and other parts of the United States many times since then, both for work and for vacations with my family. This is not the New York I was wishing to rediscover, but I’m hopeful that the pandemic will end soon.

What’s different about MSK’s Lymphoma Service?

We have the SPORE in Lymphoma [Specialized Programs of Research Excellence, a project funded by the National Cancer Institute to help move basic science findings into the clinic]. That was started by my predecessor, Anas Younes, and is now being led by Andrew Zelenetz, a leading physician in the field of B cell malignancies.  

MSK’s Lymphoma Service is quite large, with more than 20 faculty. Because there are so many of us, we can specialize not just in lymphoma but in particular types of lymphoma.

What types of lymphoma do you specialize in treating?

I was very fortunate 20 years ago to be part of the early development of the first monoclonal antibody drug for diffuse large B cell lymphoma (DLBCL), called rituximab. I’m continuing to work on developing new antibody drugs for DLBCL.

I also treat follicular lymphoma. This disease is unusual because some patients who are diagnosed with it don’t require treatment right away, only active surveillance. But it also doesn’t have a cure. Thanks to new treatments, we’ve been able to extend survival for this disease considerably, from an average of eight to ten years to an average of 15 to 20 years. But I think that with the addition of new treatments, especially different kinds of immunotherapy, we will soon be able to offer a cure for some patients.

Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) in Lymphoma
The MSK SPORE in Lymphoma seeks to improve the cure rate of patients with diffuse large B cell lymphoma.

What are some of the research collaborations you’re planning?

There are many projects I plan to pursue with people here at MSK.

I’m very excited to work with physician-scientist Santosh Vardhana, who recently started his own lab in the Human Oncology and Pathogenesis Program. He has so much knowledge about T cell biology, and we want to apply this to some of the clinical trials we are developing.

I’ve already had the opportunity to work on projects with hematopathologist Ahmet Dogan. To understand lymphoma, we have to really know what’s happening in the tumor, and pathology is the cornerstone of that.

Before I came here, I had met Sloan Kettering Institute cancer biologist Hans-Guido Wendel a few times, and I knew his work. I’ve joined his very innovative project looking at abnormal RNA translation in lymphoma to help bring his findings to the clinic.

In the past, I’ve participated in studies that looked at the ways a person’s genes influence how they respond to treatments for lymphoma. Through this work, I’ve been involved in some consortia with geneticist Vijai Joseph, who studies hereditary cancer. Now that we’re in the same place, we can find time to work more on this project.

What made you interested in pursuing science and medicine as a career — particularly cancer?

I got interested in medicine because I wanted to help people. Medicine is a profession where you bring something to others — health, one of the most precious things we have. I’m also a curious person, so that made science a natural fit.

When I finished medical school, and I had to choose where to focus, the field of oncology was attractive, in part because it was challenging. At that time, there weren’t many options for people with cancer, other than chemotherapy. We in the field were starting to learn more about the biology and immunology of the disease, and it felt like there were many opportunities to improve treatment for cancer patients.

What are you most looking forward to doing in New York once the pandemic is over?

My wife and I are both excited about getting into the jazz music scene. We sometimes hear musicians when we’re walking through Central Park, and it’s so good to hear live music.