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Yan Leyfman, 30
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HEALTH AND SAFETY36 Under 36 2020

Yan Leyfman, 30

Racing Towards a Cure

What you do:

I am currently a medical student in my final leg of training. I engage in research in hopes of contributing to the development of more effective anti-cancer therapies and improving treatment outcomes. During the Covid pandemic, I have been recruited by the Global Covid Taskforce to serve as a special adviser for Immunology, Oncology and Novel Therapeutics and to lead the Immunology Group in devising solutions and shaping policy to improve survival outcomes.

Unexpected fun fact:

I am an avid photographer and my artwork has been recognized and published in several magazines.

Quote you live by:

“Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.” 

How you got here:

Early in my undergraduate career, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. Watching her struggle and being unable to offer any relief was one of the most difficult moments of my life. This motivated me to engage in cancer research where I studied the effectiveness of a novel anti-cancer drug to target and combat cancer stem cells. Obtaining a grant and working tirelessly on this project, we were able to successfully demonstrate that this drug was effective in diminishing cancer stem cell viability and halting disease progression. This drug is currently in clinical trials.

Wishing to revitalize the immune system to aid in targeted anti-cancer treatment, I joined a lab at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center to study methods of genetically modifying T-cells to target and destroy cancer cells after graduating from college. My project resulted in the development of a novel gene-targeting platform that enhanced efficacy and significantly reduced side effects. Seeing a portion of this research successfully complete Stage I clinical trials and hearing about how all of the patients were revitalized has given me hope about the important role that immunotherapies will play in the present and future of medicine.

Formative childhood moment:

Raised in a medically deprived community ravaged by Chernobyl, I will never forget my painful childhood, where I was forced to jump between the country’s top hospitals because physicians were unable to diagnose my medical condition. Whenever I recall these events, I still remember the cries of adolescents begging for relief, yet no one was available to offer them solace. With my health rapidly deteriorating daily — my nails were falling off, my body was covered in sores containing lymph, and I had lost most of my teeth — my parents began seeking aid abroad and ultimately chose Israel due to its close proximity. The quick response to my condition by Israeli medical staff led to a gradual recovery and allowed me to finally experience a childhood that I had so desperately desired for what felt like an eternity. Their amazing care left a resounding hope that I would survive and showed me what true medicine should be like. Although I was young, I felt a profound attachment to this field, and it was this love that has continued to resonate in my heart to this day.

Best advice you received:

“Never give up on your dreams.”

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