Central Illinois physician donates $3.5 million for cancer research

Central Illinois physician donates $3.5 million for cancer research

Patient's gift creates endowed professorship for leukemia research at UChicago

July 21, 2015

Anjuli Nayak, a renowned allergist and immunologist from Bloomington who received cancer treatment at the University of Chicago Medicine, is endowing a $3.5 million professorship at the medical center for leukemia research.

The 60-year-old, who has received several experimental cancer treatments, said she wanted to make a donation to continue the academic medical center's legacy of cancer research and innovation.

"I feel really overwhelmed with the fact that this will help leukemia research go on," Nayak said. "I hope that this will bring a fuller life, a longer life and a more hopeful life to patients."

Wendy Stock, MD, professor of medicine and a leading authority on acute and chronic leukemias, will become the first holder of the Anjuli Seth Nayak Professorship in Leukemia. The appointment was effective as of March 1, 2015.

"I am tremendously honored to receive this wonderful acknowledgement of our work in the leukemia program at the University of Chicago," Stock said. "It is a special privilege to receive this gift from one of my patients, Dr. Nayak, whose grace, dignity, intelligence and optimism reflects the spirit of our patients and reminds me of the many reasons that I chose this fascinating, challenging and rewarding area of medicine."

Nayak was diagnosed in 2010 with acute lymphoblastic lymphoma (ALL), an aggressive cancer of the blood and bone marrow that can quickly spread to fluid bathing the brain and spinal cord. Despite her medical background, Nayak said the diagnosis left her feeling lost. She was ultimately referred to UChicago Medicine, where she met Stock.

"When I came to her, I was totally broken with the diagnosis," Nayak said. "The hope that was instilled in me by Dr. Stock was immeasurable. She walked the journey with me. She shared my journey with leukemia as her own. When a doctor does that for you, it's pretty amazing."

Genetic analysis showed that Nayak's leukemia had a Philadelphia chromosome, resulting from the exchange of genetic material on chromosomes 9 and 22. The switches create a cancer-causing "fusion" gene that was first described by UChicago's pioneering cancer geneticist Janet Rowley, MD, in the 1970s. That work led to the development of successful molecularly targeted therapies for this disease.

Nayak's UChicago Medicine team helped her enroll in a clinical trial using this successful molecularly targeted treatment for Philadelphia-chromosome positive ALL, which resulted in a clinical remission. She subsequently received an innovative form of hematopoietic cell transplantation developed at UChicago that involved a combination of adult donor-stem cells and umbilical cord stem cells. After a relapse, the UChicago team worked with Nayak to enroll her in another novel clinical trial.

Since her initial treatment at UChicago, Nayak has focused on restoring her health through exercise and nutrition, while also spending time speaking about her medical journey to church groups and women's retreats. Her memoir, "Plucked from a Mango Tree: An Indian Woman's Journey Across the Ocean, through Cancer, and to Freedom," was published earlier this year. The book is available through Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble and the University of Chicago Bookstore.

Nayak, who retired from Sneeze, Wheeze & Itch Associates in 2013, is donating proceeds from the book to the University of Chicago Cancer Research Foundation.