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When she was a teenager in Armenia, Nelli Bejanyan, MD, lost her cousin to acute myeloid leukemia. This traumatic loss led her to become a physician investigator specializing in both clinical and research aspects of blood and marrow transplant and cellular immunotherapies.

Photo by: Nicholas J. Gould


Women faculty at Moffitt Cancer Center come from different backgrounds and cultures around the globe. Their areas of research and clinical care span the entire cancer continuum, including clinical science and trials, basic science, epidemiology, health outcomes, medical physics and more. Community involvement, mentorship and inclusion among faculty are foundational, and we celebrate the essential roles women play in making a difference at the cancer center and in society.

An Interview with Dr. Nelli Bejanyan

Nelli Bejanyan, MD, is the program leader of Blood and Marrow Transplant (BMT) and head of the Leukemia/Myeloid Section of the BMT and Cellular Immunotherapy Department at Moffitt Cancer Center. She is also an associate professor in oncologic sciences at the University of South Florida and a graduate of the Moffitt Leadership Academy.

In her role as a physician investigator, Bejanyan specializes in both clinical and research aspects of BMT and cellular immunotherapies, with a focus on acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS). Her primary research objective is to advance clinical and translational research by fostering innovative immune cell therapy strategies to treat leukemia and prevent relapse. One of her key research areas involves investigating the potential of gamma delta T cells in controlling AML relapse. Bejanyan serves as the principal investigator in a first-in-human clinical trial that aims to use donor-derived, expanded anticancer gamma delta T cells to treat high-risk AML after BMT.

Bejanyan also holds important leadership roles in the field. She is the co-chair of the Acute Leukemia Working Committee for the Center of International Blood and Marrow Transplant Research and is a member of the International Expert Panel for AML Relapse Committee and the American Society for Transplantation and Cellular Therapy MDS Expert Panel Committee. Her contributions are instrumental in advancing the understanding and treatment of AML and myeloid disorders.

What made you want to go into medicine as a career?

My personal experience as a teenager with the tragic loss of my cousin to AML was profoundly traumatic and left a lasting impact. This was in Armenia, where we had limited treatment options and no availability of curative BMT. My personal journey has indeed played a profound role in shaping my path in medicine and instilling a deep sense of purpose in my commitment to helping others.

What’s one of the most important lessons you’ve learned from a patient?

While there have been numerous cases in my career, one case of a 32-year-old mother with three children is particularly memorable. She and her husband asked me to explain to their kids that their mom would be absent for three months. This conversation was one of the most challenging moments in my career. However, it ultimately had a positive outcome. The children, despite their young age, displayed remarkable intelligence and sweetness. At the end of our talk, the 4-year-old child said, “Please take good care of my mom.” It was a heart-wrenching experience that taught me valuable lessons about compassion and holistic patient care. It highlighted that medical care extends beyond the clinical aspect, requiring us to do what is morally right.

In a completely different scenario, I treated a 72-year-old gentleman with grandkids who had been diagnosed with AML. He was previously told he was too old for treatment. However, upon seeking a second opinion at Moffitt, he received treatment and subsequent curative BMT. Now, several years post-transplant, he is relishing his time with his children and grandchildren, with more grandchildren being born. These experiences make me feel that I am involved in a profoundly meaningful endeavor. We are providing individuals with the opportunity to not only live longer but also to enjoy life to the fullest.

What motivates you to do both research and clinical work?

I find great satisfaction in providing clinical care, but I’m equally drawn to research. I do not like stagnation and firmly believe that there is always room for improvement. In the context of adverse-risk AML, where a complete cure remains elusive with approximately 40% relapse risk after BMT, the outlook is far from optimal. It underscores the urgent need for significant advancements in preventing relapse. Innovative research is the essential avenue to achieve this goal, and it is the pathway to offering these patients a brighter prognosis.

What are you working on now that you’re most excited about?

I’m currently engaged in a highly productive collaboration that brings together laboratory physicians, scientists and our cell therapy facility to focus on donor-derived gamma delta T immunotherapy against AML. This collaborative effort represents an exciting frontier in cancer immunotherapy and underscores the potential of gamma delta T cells as a valuable tool in treating high-risk leukemia. The results obtained so far are a testament to the dedication and expertise of our team and hold significant promise for the future of cancer treatment.

What advice do you wish someone had given you at the beginning of your career?

My upbringing and cultural background made me a naturally shy person, and it influenced my early experiences. However, I’ve learned that to pursue your aspirations, you must take proactive steps. Seek out mentors and leaders in your field who can offer guidance and provide opportunities for growth. I came to learn that with dedication, persistence, and the willingness to adapt and learn, individuals can achieve their goals, no matter how daunting the circumstances may seem.

What are some of the big lessons you have taken from mentors?

I’ve been fortunate to have exceptional mentors throughout my career, and I actively sought guidance from various individuals who played distinct roles. I had mentors specializing in leukemia, transplant and administrative aspects. It’s crucial to choose mentors who align with your needs and goals. An effective mentor should be willing to invest time in your growth.

Furthermore, it’s essential to actively seek new opportunities if you find yourself not progressing as expected. Mentorship is dynamic, and exploring different areas can provide fresh perspectives and insights.

I am deeply grateful for the opportunities this country has offered me to realize my potential and grow both personally and professionally. My mentors, the supportive environment and the nation I call home have all contributed significantly to my journey. As a mentor myself now, I am committed to giving back what was generously given to me. Witnessing someone learn and grow through guidance and support is an immensely rewarding experience, and it reaffirms the value of mentorship in fostering future generations of professionals.