For this Community Spotlight feature, we spoke to Dr. Yousef Zakharia, a medical oncologist at the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center and associate professor at the University of Iowa. Dr. Zakharia shares important information about finding the best care at NCI-designated centers, as well as his passion for advocacy.
A Journey from Syria to Iowa
Born in the picturesque town of Almozaina near Homs, Syria, Dr. Yousef Nabih Zakharia’s journey to the world of medicine was influenced by a lineage of doctors in his family.
His father, Nabih, a retired physician, served as his life’s role model, while his mother, Hanan, ensured he was well-fed throughout his medical school years at Damascus University.
“My Mom Hanan made sure to cook my fresh meals and ship them my way every two weeks, almost through the entire six years while studying medicine,” he recalls with a chuckle, admitting it might have spoiled his cooking skills.
Dr. Zakharia enjoys a bit of celebrity status on the University of Iowa campus, as his face decorates a university bus and he is recognized when walking about!
A Prestigious Role at the University of Iowa
Currently, Dr. Zakharia holds esteemed positions as an Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Iowa, a GU medical oncologist at the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center (HCCC), and the Director of the Phase 1 Program.
He cherishes his life in Iowa with his wife, Mais, and their two daughters, Chloe Ann and Celine. In his free time, he plays the keyboard and is thinking of learning to play the violin. “We will see how that goes,” he says.
A fun tidbit? Their backyard adjoins a pumpkin patch that buzzes with activity during the sunflower season and Halloween.
And if you’re in Iowa, you might just spot Dr. Zakharia’s face on the University of Iowa Campus bus or the Cancer Center TV commercial!
Teamwork at Iowa
We asked Dr. Zakharia to share what he enjoys about working at the University of Iowa, as well as any unique benefits or challenges to working in the Midwest.
“It has been great working at the U. of Iowa HCCC over the years and taking care of very kind GU patients from the whole Midwest area. The environment at the University is very collaborative among physicians, staff, and researchers. On the clinical side, we work very well with our urologic oncologists, pathology, and radiation oncology teams. We share the same clinic days and space and regular tumor board to discuss challenging cases in a multidisciplinary fashion.
“On the research side, we have large and well-established basic and translational researchers who are willing to collaborate on different projects. I have leveraged this collaboration to help with some of my ongoing investigator-initiated clinical trials (IITs). One of the main projects I have been working on includes the use of high doses of selenium in metastatic kidney cancer and has many collaborators internally and externally.
“We are part of multiple collaborative networks and consortia which open the opportunity for further collaboration on clinical trials, including the Big Ten Cancer Consortium, ORIEN, and the Alliance Cooperative Group, among others.”
Dr. Zakharia is proud to be part of the work done at the University of Iowa and the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Dr. Zakharia broke a sweat raising funds for KidneyCAN at the 2022 Rock the Run event in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Dr. Zakharia proves you can truly advocate from anywhere! During our Spring Advocacy event, he stopped the car while traveling with family to hop on zooms and speak to legislators.
The Significance of NCI-Designation
The University of Iowa HCCC boasts the NCI-designation comprehensive status since 2001, placing it among the top 54 centers recognized for their scientific leadership. He says, “I feel lucky to work at a cancer center with this prestigious status as it offers us the resources and expertise to conduct any clinical and translational research from early, first-in-human, phase 1 clinical trial to later-stage, phase 3 trials, which in turn provide more treatment opportunities for our patients.”
Dr. Zakharia emphasizes the importance of this designation, stating, “I always advise my patient to choose a clinical trial as their preferred treatment option, as it offers them an extra line of therapy which is typically innovative.”
Addressing Rural Oncology Care Challenges
Dr. Zakharia is acutely aware of the challenges faced by patients in rural areas, especially in Iowa. “Some patients drive hours to get to us. One of the biggest challenges I face is related to the frequent visits required by early-phase clinical trials. I believe as a community we need to come up with better alternatives that help our patients avoid long travels which can be cumbersome physically, mentally, and financially to them and their family members.”
He advocates for more flexible strategies in clinical trials, especially when it comes to strict eligibility criteria that might exclude patients over minor issues.
“Occasionally we have patients make a few visits for screening, and they might end up ineligible for the trial due to a borderline abnormal lab value, for example, that does not meet the trial eligibility cutoff. I think we should come up with better and yet a bit more flexible strategies to make it easier on our patients,” Dr. Zakharia explains.
“Approaches like utilizing telehealth, local lab draws, local oncology safety visits and other measures could make a huge difference in our patient care and convenience.”
The Rise of Telehealth
The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of telehealth.
Dr. Zakharia sees its potential, especially for patients on active surveillance, and envisions a future where telehealth could replace frequent in-person visits for early-phase clinical trials.
“Certainly, telehealth has made it easier on many patients, especially those who live hours away from the cancer center, and those not on active treatment. We have had many kidney cancer patients on active surveillance who are getting scans locally closer to home. Those images are being transferred to us for review, and we then have a follow up visit by phone with patients to discuss plans.”
Dr. Zakharia foresees telehealth replacing the frequent in-person safety visits in early-phase clinical trials where currently patients may come as frequent as 3-5 days a week for lab work and safety checks. “I believe this could easily be achieved with local blood work and quick phone visit. It’s a no-brainer, and this would make it easier and more convenient to our patients. I know KidneyCAN has been advocating with legislators to bring more support to telehealth as well.”
Advocacy with KidneyCAN
Dr. Zakharia’s commitment to advocacy is evident. “Advocacy is an essential part of our mission to cure cancer. I believe in teamwork; we are all in it together, so we should stand as one voice to achieve our mission. It has been an honor to be an active member in KidneyCan and its advocacy efforts.”
He recalls even stopping during a family vacation to make calls to Congress as part of Spring Advocacy Days in 2023. “My family was happy to do it,” he shared.
“I believe those calls are important to increase resources and funds for kidney cancer research,” he asserts. “I encourage everyone involved in kidney cancer, whether patients and their families, physicians, researchers, and trainees, to get engaged with their legislators to spread the word about our mission.”
On challenging days, Dr. Zakharia finds solace in the smiles of his patients.
Sharing good news about their treatment progress and witnessing their joy is what motivates him the most, especially when he could show the new scans next to old scans to see the progress:
“Nothing excites me more than sharing good news with my patients when they are responding to my treatment.”
Dr. Yousef Nabih Zakharia’s journey from Syria to the heart of Iowa, his dedication to his patients, and his unwavering commitment to advancing kidney cancer research is truly inspiring. We’re honored to spotlight his incredible work and contributions to the community.
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