In the fall of 1993, George Peoples Jr. made a discovery that could lead to the cure of breast cancer. Unable to sleep, Peoples rose from bed at 3 a.m., and drove 10 miles to Harvard Medical School, where he was serving a postdoctoral fellowship. Inside a lab, he identified a protein that would be used in a vaccine to successfully treat about 100 women in a clinical trial.
In the fall of 2001, war spun his life around. While serving as chief of surgical oncology at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Peoples was deployed to Afghanistan, where he operated on soldiers with traumatic war injuries. His work there, and two years later in Iraq, impressed Atul Gawande, a fellow surgeon and critically-acclaimed author.
“Before being deployed, (Peoples) hadn’t seen a gunshot wound since residency,” Gawande wrote in the bestseller, Better, “and even then he never saw anything like the injuries he saw in Iraq. His practice at Walter Reed centered on breast surgery. Yet in Iraq, he and his team managed to save historic numbers of wounded.”
After retiring as a U.S. Army colonel in 2014, Peoples started a San Antonio contract research company that treats cancer in innovative ways.
For his pioneering work in cancer immunotherapy, military medicine and medical entrepreneurship, BioMed SA will honor Peoples with its Award for Innovation in Healthcare and Bioscience.
“Dr. Peoples is an excellent example of someone whose spirit of innovation has persevered against all the odds in several different fields to achieve transformational results for the benefit of other people,” said Ann Stevens, founding president of BioMed SA, a non-profit that promotes the bioscience industry.
A native of Trussville, Ala., and a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, Peoples, 54, considers San Antonio home. He has served at Fort Sam Houston and the San Antonio Military Medical Center and lives with his family in Alamo Heights. He will receive the Innovation award on Sept. 15.
“It’s a great honor,” Peoples said. “I do believe the award has more to do with the diversity of my career. I’ve always loved research and science. I’ve had a heart for oncology in particular.”
During a decorated military career that included a Meritorious Service Medal, the Legion of Merit and two Bronze stars, Peoples founded the Cancer Vaccine Development Program. As director, he developed four vaccines that were licensed for commercial development, including one for breast cancer.
That vaccine, known as NeuVax, resulted from his protein discovery in the Harvard Medical School lab 23 years ago. In one clinical trial, nearly 95% of 106 patients who were vaccinated showed no recurrence of breast cancer after 24 months.
For reasons unknown, Peoples said, the third trial phase of NeuVax has been suspended. He says no determination has been made whether to resume testing. A more promising trial involves the combination of NeuVax and Herceptin, which has proven effective in treating breast cancer.
“NeuVax was never going to be able to work by itself,” Peoples said. “The plan had always been to have NeuVax with Herceptin. We have two trials currently running with them together. All of the preliminary data suggests the combination works better than either alone.”
Peoples’ pioneering work extends beyond oncology. His work as chief surgeon of the first Forward Surgical Team (274th FST) in Afghanistan and Iraq was ground breaking. His team was able to lower the soldier mortality rate from 24%, the historical average at the time, to 10%.
Gawande, the surgeon and author, wanted to know how they did it. From his book: “I asked everyone who had worked on medical teams in the war. And what they described revealed an intriguing effort to do something we in civilian medicine do spottily at best: to make a science of performance, to investigate and improve how well they use the knowledge and technologies they already have in hand. The doctors told me of simple, almost banal changes that produced enormous improvements.”
Peoples and his team saved life and limb on the front lines, their mobile hospital tents erected in some cases a little more than a mile from battle.
“On several occasions, we took artillery fire,” Peoples said. “Fortunately, we didn’t have any medics or doctors get injured. And we didn’t lose any major equipment. But it was stressful in the sense that you don’t know what’s happening around you when you are that close to the fighting and you’re operating in a tent.”
War stories abound. He was working at Walter Reed when the Pentagon was struck on Sept. 11, 2001. Peoples led the first surgical team on site. In Iraq, his medical team was dispatched to an evacuated air base. Told to select any bombed-out building for a makeshift hospital, Peoples and his team picked one, not knowing it was the only building that had not been booby-trapped.
His career appears to have been one of brilliance and providence, making a discovery here, escaping danger there, a researcher and combat surgeon turning up in the right place at the right time.
His latest venture – the founding of Cancer Insight, a clinical cancer research company – builds on everything he has done before. Peoples draws warm satisfaction from the long journey that took him around the world and finally to San Antonio.
“I’ve been blessed,” he said.
Top image: Dr. George Peoples, Jr. stands in an operating room. Photo courtesy of Dr. George Peoples, Jr.