In the fight of his life, David Zaas found peace of mind by enrolling in a clinical trial

December 11, 2020
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When his doctor told him that he had acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and less than a 1 in 5 chance of survival, David Zaas, M.D., thought first of his wife and how badly he wanted to see his two teenage children grow up. He wanted every opportunity to win his battle, and the opportunity to enroll in a phase 1 trial ensured that he was doing everything possible.

Clinical trials are the only way to access innovative investigational drugs that could improve the odds of survival for patients, like Zaas, who are facing limited treatment options and poor prognoses. Participating in these trials could not only benefit these patients but impact many others, as the trials could lead to breakthrough discoveries and new treatments. 

“Seeking out clinical research for me was the chance to say, ‘I'm going to do everything I can to improve those odds and beat this disease.' I wanted to be convinced that I was going to do everything I had to do to see my kids grow up.”

David Zaas, M.D.,
MUSC Health-Charleston CEO

“Seeking out clinical research for me was the chance to say, ‘I'm going to do everything I can to improve those odds and beat this disease,’” said Zaas. “I wanted to be convinced that I was going to do everything I had to do to see my kids grow up.”

That was 2017, when Zaas was president of Duke Raleigh Hospital. He took a leave of absence to go to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, to participate in the trial of a new drug for AML, one of the first in 30 years.

“I remember the night I got admitted, and we talked about the research, and we talked about the medicine,” said Zaas. “When the physician left the room, I looked at my wife and said, ‘Whether I live or die,  I'm okay right now. We have sought out options and found what we think is the best thing out there. And we're going to take a risk and go for it.’ Psychologically, it was important to me as a patient to feel that I was doing everything I could to find the newest and greatest treatments and that I had access to them.”

Portrait of Dr. David Zaas, MUSC Health-Charleston CEO, standing outside 
MUSC Health-Charleston CEO Dr. David Zaas

Zaas knew that in choosing to enroll in a clinical trial, he was accepting a degree of risk. The medication was still in early-phase clinical trial to determine whether it was safe and effective, and so there was no guarantee that it would work. In the case of Zaas’s trial, the study drug was found to be effective and increase survival of patients with AML.

Today, Zaas, who says he’s in the best shape of his life, is the CEO of MUSC Health-Charleston. He is charged with improving the health care of patients in the Tri-county region, and he believes that one way of doing so is by making patients more aware of clinical trials.

As a physician-scientist, Zaas knew how to access clinical trials that were pertinent to his condition and his risk factor profile. But he fears the general public might have difficulties doing so.

“We need to create more visibility for clinical research for those patients who want to pursue it, whether they want to pursue it because they believe that it will benefit others, or if they're like me, and they really want to do whatever they can and are willing to take that chance,” said Zaas.

In January 2021, to help to get the word out, MUSC research staff will begin reaching out to patients about clinical trials and studies that might be good fits for them. If a patient is interested, the staff member will describe the overall design and purpose of the study as well as potential risks and rewards. It will be up to the patient to decide whether to participate.  A patient can pass on any given study or opt out of study notifications entirely.

“Giving patients options and choices and access to clinical research is part of our mission at MUSC and part of our mission as a leading academic medical center,” said Zaas.

Learn more about clinical trials and efforts to raise patient awareness of them at  Watch that page for more stories from clinical trial participants.