Leader in International Clinical Trials, Robert L. Comis, MD, FASCO, Dies at 71


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Robert L. Comis, MD, FASCO

Robert L. Comis, MD, FASCO

Robert L. Comis, MD, FASCO, Co-Chair of the ECOG-ACRIN Cancer Research Group, succumbed to a sudden illness at his home and died on May 10, 2017, at the age of 71. A giant in national and international clinical research since 1977, Dr. Comis is known as a champion of patient access to cancer clinical trials. He led the ECOG-ACRIN Group from 1995 and in that time, spearheaded scores of scientific discoveries to alleviate the burden of cancer. Through clinical trials designed and conducted by the Group, his leadership changed clinical practice across multiple types of cancer. 

“Bob showed remarkable vision in working as a partner to bring us together to form the ECOG-ACRIN Cancer Research Group,” said Group Co-Chair Mitchell D. Schnall, MD, PhD, of the University of Pennsylvania.

ECOG-ACRIN: His Proudest Scientific Achievement

Dr. Comis will always be remembered for his many initiatives to raise awareness about the pivotal role of cancer clinical trials in prevention, detection, and treatment. The establishment of the ECOG-ACRIN Cancer Research Group in 2012 is one of his proudest scientific achievements for the Group’s bold integration of therapeutic and medical imaging research with the latest bioinformatics technologies into a single scientific organization. 

Most recently, Dr. Comis cemented the Group’s capabilities in precision medicine by working closely with the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to lead the design and implementation of the NCI-MATCH (EAY131) trial. NCI-MATCH is the largest, most scientifically rigorous precision medicine cancer trial to date. 

“Dr. Comis’ vision and drive allowed us to develop and manage a complex trial in a little over a year and to complete enrollment of 6,000 patients for screening in another 15 months,” remarked Group Co-Chair Elect Peter J. O’Dwyer, MD, of the University of Pennsylvania.

Leadership Roles and Background

Dr. Comis had been a member of boards and committees for many prestigious academic organizations, including ASCO and C-Change, the American Radium Society, National Coalition for Cancer Research, and others. He served on the editorial boards of the Journal of Clinical Oncology, Cancer Research, and Clinical Cancer Research; authored more than 140 scientific articles; and contributed to more than 20 scientific and medical textbooks on cancer. His leadership in clinical research continued through frequent appearances as a subject matter expert to the U.S. Congress, Institute of Medicine, President’s Cancer Panel, National Cancer Advisory Board, and many other national and international organizations.

A graduate of Fordham University, Dr. Comis received his medical degree from State University of New York Health Science Center School of Medicine, where he also completed his medical internship and residency. He served as a staff associate at the NCI and completed a medical oncology fellowship at The Sidney Farber Cancer Center at Harvard Medical School. He held various clinical practice and research leadership positions at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, Temple University School of Medicine, Fox Chase Cancer Center, and Allegheny Cancer Center. Dr. Comis was a diplomate of the American Board of Internal Medicine and a member of the American College of Physicians–American Society of Internal Medicine.

In his early career, Dr. Comis was mentored by the founders of the field of medical oncology. Throughout his career, he was a tireless advocate for clinical research as the route to progress. His impact in the ECOG-ACRIN Cancer Research Group was to bring to the community not only new treatment options, but also the translational science that could accelerate meaningful outcomes. 

When advocacy groups representing patients began to coalesce around key therapeutic issues, Dr. Comis embraced these goals and sought partnerships to advance their cause. These relationships brought progress for patients and their families that will have an enduring impact on the field. On a personal level, Dr. Comis was the beloved mentor of young physicians and scientists, always approachable, and receptive to novel ideas. 

In addition to his many research contributions, he leaves a cadre of committed cancer researchers who work in a structure inspired by him, poised to reduce the suffering of human cancer into the future.

Tributes by Colleagues

ASCO and the oncology community are deeply saddened by the loss of Robert L. Comis, MD, FASCO. Colleagues expressed the following tributes.

“Bob helped create the cooperative group enterprise that brought so many advances to patients. He was remarkably talented as a physician, scientist, mentor, and leader, and as a musician, too. Our community is what it is thanks to his selfless dedication, and we will miss him dearly,” said ASCO Chief Executive Officer Clifford A. Hudis, MD, FACP, FASCO.

“Bob and I, like so many other clinical investigators of our day, grew up in the cooperative groups,” said ASCO Chief Medical Officer Richard L. Schilsky, MD, FACP, FASCO, who became the group chair of CALGB in 1995. “We were very much brothers in arms, friends, and confidants. I will greatly miss Bob’s passion for clinical research, which always placed the interests of patients first, his balanced judgment, and his warm good humor. The cancer community has lost a great leader and staunch champion of publicly funded clinical trials.”

2016 to 2017 ASCO President Daniel F. Hayes, MD, FACP, FASCO, concurred. “Bob Comis was a giant, and I cannot imagine ECOG-ACRIN, or ASCO, or our field without his gentle but guiding presence,” he said.

Dr. Comis is survived by his wife, five children, and four grandchildren. ■


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