Clinical Perspectives

Research Spotlight: Dr. Yamoah on the 'Lifelong Commitment' of a Physician Scientist

November 01, 2017


Dr. Kosj Yamoah
Dr. Kosj Yamoah

Your research focuses on prostate cancer in African American men. What sparked your interest prostate cancer?

The majority of my mentors during my training as a physician-scientist conducted their research in the field of prostate cancer; which, in turn, drove my initial interest in prostate cancer. My interest was further fine-tuned by the fact that as an African American physician actively involved in the management of prostate cancer patients, I witnessed the disproportionate severity of disease burden of prostate cancer first-hand among African American men, as well as men living in Africa and the Caribbean. I truly appreciate the importance of additional research in this field with the goal of improving outcomes in this patient population. Prostate cancer has become a unifying and rewarding career path for me. I find myself working on a problem that is near and dear to my heart.

You have proposed developing a cancer research training program in Ghana by partnering Moffitt and the Ghana National Control at the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital. What is the goal of the partnership? Why is it important to Ghana and Moffitt?

The burden of noncommunicable chronic diseases, especially cancer, in Africa has risen dramatically over the past few decades. Among chronic diseases, cancer trends are strikingly high in certain regions of Africa due to extensive urbanization and lifestyle changes, including smoking, alcohol consumption, and the adoption of a Western diet. Cancer is now the second leading cause of deaths globally, with 70% of all cancer deaths occurring in low-middle income countries, such as the West African nation of Ghana. Ghana hospital records show that liver and prostate cancers are the two most common causes of cancer deaths among men, whereas breast and cervical cancer are the two most common causes among women. With rapid population growth, greater life expectancies, improved diagnostic abilities, lower HIV infection rates, and the adoption of sedentary lifestyles and unhealthy dietary habits, the prevalence of these four cancers have increased.

Given Ghana's need to tackle this cancer epidemic through research and a limited number of potential trainees, we have established a memorandum of understanding that allows Moffitt Cancer Center to partner with the National Cancer Control located at the nation's largest teaching hospital, Korle Bu, to develop a cancer research training program. Of note, these four cancers also pose a significant healthcare burden in the United States, with unfavorable outcomes disproportionately affecting African American patients; therefore, a collaborative research initiative focusing on these four cancers in patients of African descent is of benefit to both countries. This proposal, through in-depth needs assessments and the development of research training programs, will build opportunities for sustainable multidisciplinary research in both the US and Ghana. It will also further the partnership between Moffitt Cancer Center in the U.S. and the National Cancer Control in Ghana, laying a strong foundation for future projects. Global scientific collaborations of this kind can help Moffitt researchers tease out the details of underlying biology by comparing subsets of patients from far-flung corners of the world.

We frequently receive requests from students requesting internships in your lab. You clearly support training. What advice would you give to students considering a dual medical/research career?

The dual medical/research career is a very rewarding career path for students who want to practice medicine at the leading edge of discovery. The ability to conduct bench research and translate findings to patients in real-time is considered bench-to-bedside. We are now beginning to see more of the bedside-to-bench-back to-beside research here at Moffitt Cancer Center. The physician scientist career path often attracts hardworking and outstanding students who demonstrate a high level of intellectual curiosity and offers them the unique opportunity to dedicate themselves to the kind of groundbreaking work that pushes the boundaries of medicine. The only downside is that this career path requires several years of training consisting of some kind of postdoctoral research fellowship with or without a prior PhD graduate program, in addition to the formal medical degree program and five to seven years of residency training. Collectively, one should expect to spend anywhere from 11 to 18 years after college in order to become a physician scientist. This is a very rewarding and lifelong commitment that is grounded in a passion for scientific discovery to move the field of medicine forward at the expense of personal or financial gain in most cases. I always tell my students who have this interest to count the cost. Secondly, they must take advantage of every opportunity to investigate a field of medicine that might be of interest to them early on in their time in college by participating in summer internships to gain as much experience and more importantly get a feel for what areas of research or medicine they do not want to pursue on a long term basis. These opportunities will help them understand what is required for success, identify a role model or mentor early in the process, focus more quickly on their area of interest, and establish realistic expectations of what the career path entails.

You have a remarkable education story. You received an International Achievement Award as the youngest student in Africa. You graduated high school at 7 and college at age 13. What drove you to succeed and what was is like to be significantly younger than your peers? Who was your champion?

I guess I had some of the qualities I described above for students seeking to pursue the dual medical/research career. I'd say that a great part of my drive was my deep compassion for the sick coupled with my intellectual curiosity in finding the root cause of human illness and doing everything in my power to address it. While in high school I was elected as the health officer for all the members of my dorm. Although I was five years younger than my peers, I was in charge of coordinating all sick visits to our local hospital and worked closely with the doctors to facilitate the health care for the students. Medical research seemed like a good idea to me at a very early age. By the time I got into college at the age of 13 I knew I wanted to be a medical scientist. I was very good at mathematics, physics and chemistry, so I thought I would pursue a career as a biomedical engineer. Long story short, I ended up in the very rewarding field as a radiation oncologist which is a perfect blend of my interests in math and physics applied to directly treat cancer with radiation energy.

I will not hesitate to say that my champion is my father. My dad, Rev. Dr. John Yamoah, is a minister of the gospel. He was a military Air Force pilot before he became a minister. Throughout my childhood years, I saw how my dad invested a significant amount of time with me and my three siblings and never put his work before his family. He taught me how to pray and to always look to scripture for guidance in every situation of life. The important attributes of my professional life which includes compassion to heal the sick, to put others before myself, to love and care for humanity (both near and far) were cultivated through my personal faith and the lessons I learned from my Dad, my hero and champion.