Robert L. Comis, 71, noted cancer researcher who never forgot the patient

Robert L. Comis, 71, of Wyncote, a brilliant physician and noted researcher who pushed hard for cancer clinical trials to combat the disease but never lost sight of the patient, died Wednesday, May 10, of a heart attack at home.

Since 1977, Dr. Comis had created centers for the research and treatment of cancer, first in Syracuse, N.Y., and later at Fox Chase Cancer Center and Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.

Even as a leader and clinician, he took time to value and respect his patients. He championed their access to cancer clinical trials. He listened to their worries carefully and used the input when setting up the trials.

“He gave them a voice at the table,” said daughter Larissa.

In 1984, he became medical director and chairman of medical oncology at Fox Chase Cancer Center. He strengthened the research program, and led Fox Chase to receive its first National Cancer Institute designation as a comprehensive cancer center.

Dr. Paul F. Engstrom, senior adviser to the president of Fox Chase, called Dr. Comis “a charismatic leader.”

“I think his contribution to the center was to be the first director to emphasize and encourage the staff to participate in clinical research and the use of new drugs to treat cancer in new and exciting ways,” Engstrom said.

“He was a very bright man who had deep experience in using and setting up clinical trials to identify the best treatments for cancer.”

Although not credited with one specific development in cancer research, Dr. Comis set the bar high for academic rigor in the next generation of cancer scientists,  Engstrom said.

When he moved to Thomas Jefferson University Cancer Center in 1993 to become clinical director, Dr. Comis propelled it to designation as a National Cancer Institute cancer center within six months of his arrival.

In 1995, he took over leadership of the Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group, in which multiple research centers collaborated on developing solutions to medical research puzzles. In 2012, the Eastern Group, called ECOG, merged with the American College of Radiology Imaging Network, or ACRIN, to form ECOG-ACRIN.

The idea was to create a new type of research organization with therapeutic and imaging strengths. At the time of his death, Dr. Comis was leading a large precision medicine cancer trial, NCI-MATCH, which uses sophisticated tumor gene testing to match patients to treatments based on the makeup of their own tumor cells.

“This was a step forward because no lone doctor sees enough of these patients. The match is between the molecular mutation and the specific drug that affects the mutation, and therefore changes the growth of the cancer cells,” Engstrom said.

“This had been done in a limited way in universities scattered around the country. But it allowed patients in rural areas and community hospitals to be screened in these trials and to be identified as candidates for this very specialized therapy,” he said.

Daniel F. Hayes, president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, knew Dr. Comis and said his death was a tremendous loss to the medical field.

“Bob Comis was a giant, and I cannot imagine ECOG-ACRIN, the society, or our field without his gentle but guiding presence,” Hayes said in an online tribute.

An important study Dr. Comis led, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2000, proved that bone marrow transplantation was not an effective treatment in women with breast cancer. After the study appeared, the practice stopped.

Born in Albany, N.Y., the son of James Carl Comis Sr. and Mary Casile Comis, he grew up in nearby Watervliet, where he graduated from Catholic High School. He excelled in academics and earned plaudits for his prowess on the football field and basketball court.

He received a bachelor’s degree at Fordham University in New York City and his medical degree from the State University of New York Health Science Center School of Medicine (SUNY) in Syracuse. He also completed his medical internship and residency there.

He served as a staff associate at the National Cancer Institute and completed a medical oncology fellowship at the Sidney Farber Cancer Center at Harvard Medical School. He logged time as a staff associate at the National Cancer Institute.

His early interest in cancer research was heightened when, on behalf of the U.S. Public Health Service, he went to Uganda to provide chemotherapy for children suffering from Burkitt lymphoma, an aggressive and often fatal disease.

His family recalled Dr. Comis as a skilled communicator. He had an amazing ability to put his patients at ease and to “lighten their load and ease their burden while under his care,” the family wrote.

When not involved in medicine, Dr. Comis read voraciously and was an accomplished, joyful pianist. He enjoyed arranging flowers. He had recently begun to explore oil painting “with a singular passion,” his family wrote.

He also learned all he could about food and wine, and “enjoyed both with gusto,” his family recalled.

In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his wife, Virginia Martin; children Bob, Peter Martin, Julia Johnson, and Anthony; and four grandchildren. He was formerly married to Sharon Nottingham and Nancy Phillips. Both survive.

Services were Monday, May 15.

Memorial donations may be made to ECOG-ACRIN Medical Research Foundation Inc. via www.ecog-acrin.org/contact-us/donations.

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