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The CheckPoints Let Immunotherapy Experts Cut Loose

Laura Panjwani
Published Online: 12:48 PM, Sat November 12, 2016
Music is often considered to be therapeutic for those going through cancer treatment. But it is not just oncology patients that may find it beneficial, said Patrick Hwu, MD.

“There are a lot of people in medicine that love listening to and playing music,” said Hwu, department chair, Department of Melanoma Medical Oncology, Division of Cancer Medicine, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. “It is a really important thing to do because, as oncologists, when we take care of cancer patients, it can be very stressful. Music can help us exercise our right brain, our creative side, and relieve that stress.”

Hwu, a keyboardist, has taken his “stress-reliever” further than he ever imagined. For the past 10 years, he has been a member of The CheckPoints, a band made up entirely of oncologists and cancer researchers focused on immunotherapy.

The group—considered the official house band of the Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer (SITC)—performs every year at the annual meeting, as well as at a SITC sponsored event at the ASCO annual meeting each year.

They will be performing Saturday, November 12, from 8:30 to 11:00 PM in the Maryland Ballroom.

The idea for the band came from Hwu and Thomas Gajewski, MD, PhD, a professor of medicine at the University of Chicago who plays the guitar. At an ASCO meeting, the 2 bonded over their joint love of music and discussed starting a band. When Hu found out that one of his residents at John Hopkins School of Medicine, Rachel Humphrey, MD—now the chief medical officer, CytomX Therapeutics—was a singer, the idea was settled. Hwu then recruited harmonica player and professor and chair of Immunology at MD Anderson Cancer Center, James Allison, PhD, and The CheckPoints band was formed.

Today the group consists of the original 4, plus guitarist John Timmerman, MD, an associate professor of medicine in the Division of Hematology and Oncology, David Geffen School of Medicine at University of California, Los Angeles, and drummer Dirk Spitzer, PhD, an assistant professor of surgery, Division of General Surgery, Washington University School of Medicine, Siteman Cancer Center.

Recently the band added brass players to the group, with Ferran Prat, PhD, vice president, Strategic Industry Ventures at MD Anderson, on saxophone, and Jason Luke, MD, assistant professor of medicine at University of Chicago Medicine, on trumpet. Tonight, Brad Reinfeld, an MD/ PhD student from Vanderbilt University, will make his debut with the group on bass guitar.

The group plays a wide range of music. “We literally cover everything from A to Z,” said Spitzer. “We cover several decades of music, from the 60s to now and everything from Adele to ZZ Top.”

“We’ve been extending our repertoire,” added Allison. “Rock and roll, popular songs, blues. We have a lot of fun. We play everything.”

The songs they play are mostly light and upbeat. The group focuses on covers the audience will recognize, even incorporating songs that pay tribute to their field of study.

“For many years, no one believed in immunotherapy,” said Hwu. “So, we end every show with ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ by Journey. It is kind of our anthem to show that we’ve persisted through all of these years and now everyone understands that immunotherapy is important.”

This year, The CheckPoints will also debut new songs that feature their brass players, Luke and Prat.

With band members spread across the country, finding rehearsal time can be difficult for The CheckPoints. To overcome this, they rely heavily on technology, sharing song lyrics, set lists, and more using an online dropbox. The group typically meet a day or 2 before each performance to rehearse. Several of the band members, including Hu and Allison, also play together regularly in non-CheckPoint gigs.

The band encourages members of the audience to join them on stage, and they often have guest performers. Special guests have included Lisa H. Butterfield, PhD, the vice president of SITC.

“I think this breaks the ice at these meetings,” said Spitzer. “We have guest singers, players. Many society members have gotten involved as guest musicians. It is just amazing."

The main goal is really to have fun, said Allison. “With the work that we do, we want to have fun; it’s not just the grind,” he said. “We try and have as much fun as possible and get everyone is the audience to have fun. Work hard, play harder.”

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