Most men in their 50s don’t bike 200 miles during a weekend. Rafat Abonour, MD, is not most men. He’s on a mission. He’s passionate about finding a cure for multiple myeloma, an incurable but treatable blood cancer. Dr. Abonour — a physician scientist at IU School of Medicine, IU Simon Cancer Center, and IU Health — will soon embark on a two-day, 200-mile journey that will take him and dozens of cyclists from Indy to Terre Haute and back to Indy. In the early years of Miles for Myeloma, participants ran an ultramarathon one day and cycled the second day, but in more recent years, the entire route has been covered by bike. In all, Dr. Abonour has covered 2,300 miles on Hoosier roads. In the process, he and his supporters have raised an astonishing $5 million for both multiple myeloma research at IU and enhanced patient care at IU Health.
With just days remaining before he jumps on his bike for the Friday, Sept. 21 kick-off for the 14th annual Miles for Myeloma, we caught up with Dr. Abonour.
Q: Miles for Myeloma is just around the corner. What’s typically on your mind in the days right before the ride?
Dr. Abonour: I question my sanity. And I worry about how ready I am. But mostly, I look forward to be with the friends who spend time and resources making Miles for Myeloma successful. It is my favorite part of the year. We persevere together but mostly celebrate life and humanity.
Q: This is the 14th annual ride. When you started, did you ever have an inkling that you’d be going all these years – and miles – later?
Dr. Abonour: I trained as a marathoner, so I knew I was in it for the long haul. I am proud of how far we have gone and how much we have achieved, although I wish we could find a cure soon.
Q: How long do you anticipate you’ll keep doing this?
Dr. Abonour: As long as I can. I am not giving up on curing myeloma. This event has brought together amazing people. As long as we have the team members on board, we are continuing the journey.
Q: Looking back on the rides (and the running combined with cycling that you used to do), what memories stick out?
Dr. Abonour: That is a hard question. Thirteen years of memories … they all are amazing. Running into IU Memorial Stadium being cheered on by patients’ families and IU President McRobbie was special. Running from Carmel to Kokomo in 30-degree temperatures was unforgettable but riding the next day in freezing weather to South Bend with one of my patients who is still fighting myeloma is still on my mind.
Q: You obviously are committed to patients with multiple myeloma. What can you tell us about both advances in research and patient care for those with multiple myeloma?
Dr. Abonour: We are getting more patients today into remission, and they are staying in remission longer than ever thanks to many new drugs that our group helped develop in clinical trials.
Q: As you know, IU announced that researchers and physicians in its Precision Health Initiative would develop new approaches for treating multiple myeloma. What can you tell us about that progress?
Dr. Abonour: I’m thrilled that multiple myeloma was chosen to be included in the IU Grand Challenge Precision Health Initiative. Through the initiative, we are not only focused on curing the disease, but eventually preventing it. We have recently launched an innovative prevention study that is screening patients awaiting bariatric weight loss surgery for the presence of MGUS, a multiple myeloma precancerous protein. Our goal is to study the impact of bariatric surgery on the MGUS protein. If bariatric surgery stops progression of the protein, we will have more information to translate to potential disease prevention. We are also conducting the Indiana Multiple Myeloma Biobank Study, which is enrolling 1,000 multiple myeloma patients across the state who are willing to donate a sample, such as blood or saliva, to extract genomic and environmental data for the development of clinical trials aimed at cures.
Q: You told us before that you almost chose to be a mathematician. Any regrets about not going down that path?
Dr. Abonour: I have the best job in the world. Taking care of myeloma patients has been hard but extremely rewarding. As I always say, I hate myeloma, but I love my patients.