Nasser Hanna, MD, oncologist at Indiana University Health, grew up around medicine, so many weren’t surprised when he went into the field. “My dad was a doctor, he was a general practitioner, and I spent quite a bit of time in his office growing up. I always knew that I wanted to have a strong impact on people, just like my dad.”
Growing up in St. Charles, Missouri, Dr. Hanna was not only influenced by his father, but also his mother, who worked as a social worker. He says having both parents in professions where they helped others ultimately guided his schooling and career.
As an undergrad, Dr. Hanna majored in biology and received an undergraduate degree from St. Louis University. From there, he got his M.D. at University of Missouri School of Medicine, in Columbia, Missouri. Dr. Hanna completed his residency in internal medicine at University of Iowa and then went on to Indiana University School of Medicine where he finished his Oncology Fellowship in December 2000. He’s been in Indiana specializing in lung cancer ever since.
Concentrating on cancer, however, wasn’t a part of Dr. Hanna’s original plan. “In medical school I wanted to be a pediatrician, or a primary care physician, but then I came across the field of oncology. It was rewarding. The science of cancer was a way to engage in medicine that would challenge me the most,” he says.
The scientific landscape of cancer is also evolving at a lightening speed. “Oncology has the most growth of any field in medicine. The last 15 years has seen tremendous progress,” he says. “Twenty years ago it was about chemotherapy, now that we have new immunotherapy drugs, the progress has been amazing. It’s revolutionary.”
For instance, Dr. Hanna explains that in 2001 when he started practicing oncology, it was surprising to see someone with stage 4 lung cancer living past a year. Today, it’s not uncommon to see that same patient living more than five years. “It’s been a huge change and the next decade will truly be amazing.”
Today, Dr. Hanna is working on a number of trials on immunotherapy and lung cancer and he’s encouraged by the success of early studies. He explains that when the immune system is suppressed, like it is in patients with HIV or organ transplant, they are more susceptible to cancer. So by understanding a new class of drugs that work with the immune system, which is what immunotherapy is, doctors can target these drugs against a number of cancers. “It is exciting research,” he says.
When he’s not at the hospital, Dr. Hanna spends time with his wife of 20 years and his four children, who range in age from 3 to 17.
Does he think any of his children will follow in his footsteps? “I have encouraged them to think about service, whether it’s in medicine, public office or something else,” he says.
Why the emphasis on service?
“Because nothing beats helping other people,” says Dr. Hanna.
-- By Judy Koutsky