Dr. Randal Wada Veered Off His Career Course and Found His Life’s Calling
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
It was not supposed to be this way. After only three years, Randy Wada was on track to graduate from Northwestern University and begin dental school in the fall of 1978. In his final undergraduate semester, he took a random course in molecular biology and cancer to fill out his schedule. The class would change his life.
Taught by Dr. Brian Spear, who had the extraordinary idea that laboratory research should be joyful and fun as well as serious and disciplined, Wada was given a set of articles by a scientist who had taken a cancer cell, surrounded it with embryonic cells and then injected it into a mouse. Instead of running amok, the cancer cell normalized.
“At the time, it was all very controversial because we had been taught that your genes were your destiny. But this experiment was suggesting that if you surrounded the cancer cell with the right friends, you could change its future. I started to think that this is the way we should be treating cancer. Instead of trying to kill the cancer cells, maybe we should be rehabilitating them.”
For Wada, there would be no turning back. He closed the door to dental school and began pursuing a medical degree at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga. While on a school shuttle ferrying him to classes, Wada happened to sit next to Dr. Victor Loui, who suggested that he consider pediatric oncology as his specialty. “Dr. Loui explained that kids did better than adults when given cancer therapy, and if they were saved, they had the rest of their lives ahead of them.”
Wada took Loui’s advice seriously and began to focus on helping kids overcome a disease that, at the time, seemed terrifying and overpowering to everyone.
Upon graduation, Wada headed west to work at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles as a pediatric resident. In California, he met Jorge Ortega, a senior faculty member in the hospital’s oncology department and a visionary in the field of pediatric cancer therapy. “He was Cuban, and when I arrived, he invited the entire department to his house and made Cuban food. I had never tasted anything so delicious.
“He was such a good teacher, and he was so good with his patients,” Wada said of Ortiz. “For me, he modeled what a physician should be, and I wanted to be like him.”
One incident in particular remains etched in Wada’s memory.
“On a regular basis, doctors convened in a big group to discuss particularly difficult cases. As a resident, I sat in on one of those meetings and they were discussing this unusually complicated case about a child who was getting progressively sicker. But the doctors disagreed on how to treat her and could only argue amongst themselves,” Wada remembers. “Ortega stood up and said, ‘This child needs a doctor now, and we have to act.’ In medicine, you want to be certain and bring as much data to your decision as possible, but there are times when you have to make the best decision with the information you have and go forward for the sake of the patient.”
At the end of his residency, Wada disappeared into the research laboratory as a postdoctoral student studying an invisible world that he found increasingly fascinating. “I knew I wanted to specialize in pediatric cancer and I found out about this fellowship at UCLA in cancer immunology that would focus on molecular biology.”
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