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Rochester Innovators Series: Lewis Roberts

Rochester Innovators Series: Lewis Roberts

For more than two decades, Dr. Lewis Roberts has been making regular trips between Rochester and his birth continent of Africa in an effort to improve health outcomes in some of the poorest and most underdeveloped communities in the world. 

As president of the nonprofit Africa Partners Medical, Dr. Roberts works with a volunteer-led coalition of physicians and nurses to provide education, training and health supplies to medical personnel across Africa. In doing so, the organization aims to tackle some of the continent’s most preventable and prevalent diseases, from diabetes to malaria.

“What every human being deserves is a life of dignity,” says Dr. Roberts, a renowned liver cancer researcher and Professor of Medicine at Mayo Clinic.

Dr. Roberts grew up in the western African country of Ghana, where rates of hepatitis B and C are extraordinarily high and liver cancer is a leading cause of death. Guided by faith and a will to help others, he has since dedicated his career to improving methods of diagnosis and treatment of cancer with the hope that his work can impact patients from Rochester to Kumasi.

“One of my friends once said, ‘I think, Lewis, that you are doing more good being outside [Ghana] than you probably would if you had come back and lived here'," Dr. Lewis tells us. “And for me, that reaffirmed my vision of what you can accomplish in life, and that I don’t have to live there to have an impact on the health of people there.”

For the last installment in our 2017 Rochester Innovators Series, we sat down with Dr. Lewis to learn more about the work he does in the lab and with Africa Partners Medical. Minor edits were made for flow and clarity.

You have accomplished quite a bit over the past 25 years. Going back, why did you decide to get into liver research?

As I was ending my training, my colleagues [at Mayo] asked me if I would be interested in staying on. I said, ‘sure’ ... and they said, ‘well, what do you want to do? What do you want your career to be?’ And that really took me back to Africa, because when I was training in medical school, I had met many, many young people who had liver diseases and liver cancer.

Photo courtesy Dr. Roberts

Photo courtesy Dr. Roberts

Where has your research taken you over the years?

It’s been very rewarding. I’ve gone about building a fairly broad program. Part of it is studying how cancer cells signal within themselves and within the cancer to allow the cancer to grow and spread. So that’s part of the work we do in the laboratory. I have also been interested in helping to develop new biomarkers for how you detect liver cancer at an early stage.

You’ve decided to build your entire career at Mayo. What stands out about this place?

For someone with my interest, I couldn’t have found a better place. The Clinic has very strong values of the needs of the patient coming first, and the focus on patients; but also a recognition that the shields of research and education are what keep the clinical practice strong. And for someone who came from a family where education was a dominant theme, and was very interested in research, I got here and I felt like a kid in a candy store. Here are all these people who are really interested in helping patients.

Tell us about your early experiences here. 

You tend to think that people expect you to know things. I hadn’t seen patients for many years, so when I came I had to learn a lot. I kept calling people and they’re thinking I’m asking a stupid question. And I realized pretty quickly that there were experts in everything, and they were actually excited that somebody called and asked them a question.

So I learned a ton … and it was very easy. Because, you know, I hear about people who are afraid to ask questions because someone will think they’re dumb. But it really isn’t the culture here where you feel that.

Is it that culture that keeps you inspired?

Well, one of the things I learned as I studied the lives of the Mayo Brothers was that they, you know, became fairly wealthy and then they gave the money away. And when they gave the money away, you learned there was quite an outcry about it here in Minnesota … so they actually had to write to justify why they had done this. And this is what they said: They said that, ‘our father taught us that anyone who had more of something than others, whether it was more strength of mind, or wealth, or character, have the responsibility not just to themselves but to others also.’ And so I think it’s these thoughts that really encouraged me to participate in the work Africa Partners was doing.

This is part of the blessing of being at Mayo; the people who work here want to train people. Mayo is such a big training institution that you have a group of people who are very interested in training … and they are very generous with their time. They’re taking vacation time to go to Africa for a week to help train people there. It’s remarkable.

Rochester Innovators is a nine-part series being published in partnership with Destination Medical Center.

Cover photo by William Forsman

Rochester Innovators Series: Richard Ehman

Rochester Innovators Series: Richard Ehman