By Marti Gacioch
While much of Scripps La Jolla pediatrician Dr. Robert Bjork’s day centers on children’s care, his life’s passion lies in the cancer immunology research he’s pursued for more than 15 years.
Bjork holds a U.S. patent for an innovative immunotherapy for cancer that could be available in the next two years and provide a major breakthrough in finding a cure.
“It will be beneficial in all kinds of cancers, but the initial tests will be on chronic lymphocytic leukemia as a model,” Bjork said. “It’s the most advantageous to study immunotherapy in a disease like chronic lymphocytic leukemia because we can see the cancer and the immune system all in one teaspoon of blood by using our high-tech machinery and software.”
As a pediatrician, Bjork cares for children from birth through age 18. He specializes in neonatal circumcision, infant colic, and attention deficit disorders. “My pediatric day job is a labor of love that helps provide a salary to continue my research work or I would have to rely on grants,” Bjork said.
He also serves as a co-chair of the Scripps Health Institutional Review Board for the protection of human research subjects at all five Scripps hospitals. The board examines the ethics and safety of every clinical research study at Scripps to make sure the documents given to patients inform them adequately about the risks of the studies.
“I get to see all the new research that’s coming out on all the different types of treatments for all kinds of diseases and all the new studies on cancer treatment,” Bjork said.
He earned his M.D. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine in 1981. Cancer research became his passion while studying cancer immunology and biology during a fellowship at UCLA, 1984-1988.
He foresees that his immunology treatment will complement the use of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery to reduce the size of tumors. “After the cancer burden is minimized with conventional treatments, the immunologic infusion will be used to allow the immune system to destroy the rest of the tumor cells and maintain surveillance,” Bjork said. “This technology will reduce the risk of relapse, and in some ways, we now know what the eventual cure for cancer will look like.”
Bjork primarily works with his mentor, Scripps oncologist Dr. Alan Saven. He credits his father, Robert Bjork Sr., a retired NASA scientist and nuclear physicist, for inventing the software program that enabled him to see the immune abnormality that allows cancer to grow unchecked by the host immune system.
— Reach Dr. Robert Bjork at (858) 457-0030 or 4520 Executive Drive, Suite 350, San Diego.