Dr. Meir Wetzler’s work in the field of leukemia grew from a complaint. During his 1986 residency in internal medicine at Kaplan Hospital in Rehovot, Israel, he was assigned a presentation on hypercalcemia. When he told his mentor that he found the topic boring, “he got very upset with me,” Dr. Wetzler recalled in a 2014 interview with the Roswell Park Cancer Institute (RPCI) CRS Corners newsletter. “He said, ‘If you don’t want to do your presentation on hypercalcemia, I don’t want to be your mentor anymore.’”
That conflict turned out to be fortuitous: When Dr. Wetzler asked the department chair for help in finding an alternate project, he was directed to The Weizmann Institute, where basic research was underway in the evolving field of oncogenes. Dr. Wetzler ended up studying the breast cancer oncogene Her2/neu under the direction of Dr. Joseph “Yossi” Schlessinger (now the William H. Prusoff Professor and Chair of Pharmacology at Yale University) – an experience that jump-started Dr. Wetzler’s interest in the field of oncology.
A 1980 graduate of Hebrew University’s Hadassah Medical School in Jerusalem, Dr. Wetzler later won a fellowship in medical oncology at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Before coming to the United States, he began research in the field of leukemia and immediately got hooked. He subsequently completed a second fellowship in clinical immunology/biologic therapy, also at MD Anderson.
In 1994 Dr. Wetzler moved to Buffalo, New York, to join RPCI’s Leukemia Section. His research focused on the role of the signal transducer and activation of transcription (STAT) protein in leukemogenesis; cellular and humoral immune response to leukemia-associated antigens; and cytogenetics in acute myeloid leukemia and acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
He had an overarching interest in improving the standard of care for patients with leukemia, and this fed his enthusiasm for making newer biologic and immunotherapeutic options available to his patients. He was actively involved in promising early-stage clinical trials of novel therapeutics, and at the time of his death, served as principal investigator on several clinical trials at RPCI. With Dr. Mary Reid, Director of Collaborative Research at RCPI, Dr. Wetzler co-chaired RPCI’s Scientific Review Committee (SRC). Together they helped reduce by 40 days the process of taking a protocol from SRC submission to activation.
Following Dr. Wetzler’s death on Feb. 23, 2015, Greg Stephens, Executive Director of the National CML Society, noted in a Facebook post that Dr. Wetzler “made himself available at all hours of the day and night and shared his knowledge freely and abundantly.” Comments posted on local media websites included accolades from his patients and their family members, praising his passion and compassion.
Through RPCI’s affiliation with the School of Medicine at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Dr. Wetzler mentored many young physicians and researchers. A physician now on the faculty at M.D. Anderson recalls how Dr. Wetzler “drew the BCR-ABL chromosomal translocation to teach me how CML develops, on my first visit [to RPCI] … I would not be where I am if it were not for his mentoring.”
Dr. Wetzler lived up to his assertion that every member of his team was equally valuable. “I have an outstanding team,” he previously stated. “That’s what makes me smile every morning.”
He encouraged his colleagues to fulfill their potential, and he then helped them do just that. Linda Lutgen-Dunckley, Pathology Resource Technician in Dr. Wetzler’s lab, said he adjusted her work hours to accommodate her family life after the birth of her son, and he later enabled her to work a flexible schedule so she could pursue a bachelor’s degree in biology. Ms. Lutgen-Dunckley will graduate in May of 2016.
Dr. Wetzler was an accomplished athlete who completed many triathlons, including the Ironman, which combines a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle course, and a marathon (26.2 miles), with no breaks in between. He also had a humorous and playful side, evidenced when he and his team participated in the annual Gelatin Splash to benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of Western New York. They wore themed costumes while sliding into a pool of gelatin, raising thousands of dollars in pledges. Over the years, Dr. Wetzler appeared as Superman, Shrek, Jack Sparrow from “Pirates of the Caribbean,” and, in drag, as Edna Turnblad from the film “Hairspray.”
Dr. Wetzler was a member of the CML Clinical Practice Guidelines Committee of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network and was named numerous times to the Castle Connolly Medical Ltd. list of America’s Top Doctors. At the time of his death, he was Chief of RPCI’s Leukemia Section and Medical Director of Clinical Services in the Department of Medicine.
Dr. Wetzler inspired us all in so many different ways; RPCI and the cancer community have lost a dedicated son. Those of us who have had the privilege of working and interacting with him are better people for it. He will be sorely missed.
Dr. Wetzler is survived by his wife, Chana; daughters Mor and Shira; and sons Adam and Modi. RPCI has established the Meir Wetzler Memorial Fund for Leukemia Research in his honor. Visit http://giving.roswellpark.org/wetzler.