From War-Torn Beirut to Myeloma Research in NY

Tarek Mouhieddine, MD, grew up as a child of war-torn Lebanon. Now building his career as a New York–based hematologist oncologist, Dr. Mouhieddine works in the trenches of a very different kind of battle. His mission: Find a way to reverse multiple myeloma in its mysterious early “smoldering” stages and give patients a new lease on life before the cancer takes hold.

“If we start treatment earlier, in the smoldering phase, maybe there is a chance of actually curing the disease and completely getting rid of it,” said Dr. Mouhieddine, 31, a research fellow at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in New York. “We haven’t proven that yet, and it’s going to take years before we’re able to prove it. I’m hoping to be one of those spearheading the initiative.”

Dr. Tarek Mouhieddine

As he develops clinical trials, the young physician scientist has another focus: A deeply personal connection to the very disease he’s trying to cure. Last year Dr. Mouhieddine diagnosed his aunt back in Lebanon with multiple myeloma. “I have always been close to her, and I’m like her son,” he said, and her situation is especially scary because she lives in a country where treatment options are limited.

Dr. Mouhieddine was born and raised in Beirut, the son of a sports journalist father and a mother who worked in a bank. Lebanon’s civil war ended in 1990, shortly before his birth, but political instability returned when he was a child.

“Everything was a disaster,” he recalled. “There was a period of time when there were bombs throughout the city because certain politicians were being targeted. I remember when groups of people would have gunfights in the street.”

Dr. Mouhieddine attended the American University of Beirut, then after college and medical school there, he headed to the United States.

“I wanted to make a difference in medicine. And I knew that if I stayed back home, I wouldn’t be able to,” he said. Fortunately, “everybody has made me feel that I really belong here, and I’ve never felt like I’m an outsider.”

Early on, as he went through fellowships and residency, he developed an interest in multiple myeloma.

Ajai Chari, MD, a colleague of Dr. Mouhieddine’s at Icahn School of Medicine, said in an interview, “I remember meeting him at a conference before he had even started an internal medicine residency, let alone a hematology oncology fellowship. He was already certain he wanted to work in multiple myeloma, due to his work at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.”

Myeloma was especially intriguing to Dr. Mouhieddine because of the rapid rate of progress in treating the disease. “Over the past 10 years, the myeloma field has advanced at such an extremely fast pace, more than any other cancer,” he said. “Maybe 15 years ago, you would tell someone with newly diagnosed myeloma that they had a chance for an average of another 2 years. Now, we tell patients they have 10 years to live on average, which means you could live 15 or 20 years. That alone was astounding to me and piqued my interest in myeloma.”

At the same time, smoldering myeloma – which can be discovered during routine blood work – remains little understood. As the National Cancer Institute explains, “smoldering myeloma is a precancerous condition that alters certain proteins in blood and/or increases plasma cells in bone marrow, but it does not cause symptoms of disease. About half of those diagnosed with the condition, however, will develop multiple myeloma within 5 years.”

“If we understand what drives smoldering myeloma, we may be able to prevent it from progressing to its active form,” said hematologist oncologist Samir Parekh, MD, who works with Dr. Mouhieddine at Icahn School of Medicine. “Or at the minimum, we could better predict who will progress so we can tailor therapy for high-risk patients and minimize toxicity by not overtreating patients who may not need therapy.”

Dr. Mouhieddine’s current work is focusing on developing clinical trials to test whether immunotherapy can snuff out myeloma when it’s at the smoldering stage, “before anything bad happens.

“If a myeloma patient comes in with renal failure, and we treat the myeloma at that stage, it doesn’t mean that the patient’s kidneys are gonna go back to normal. A lot of the damage can be permanent,” he said. “Even when you treat multiple myeloma, and it goes into remission, it ends up coming back. And you just have to go from one therapy to the other.”

In contrast, a successful treatment for smoldering myeloma would prevent progression to the full disease. In other words, it would be a cure – which is now elusive.

Specifically, Dr. Mouhieddine hopes to test whether bispecific antibodies, a type of immunotherapy that enlists the body’s T cells to kill myeloma cells, will be effective in the smoldering phase. Bispecific antibodies are now being explored as treatments for full multiple myeloma when the immune system is weaker, he said, and they may be even more effective earlier, when the body is better equipped to fight off the disease.

Dr. Mouhieddine hopes better treatments for multiple myeloma itself will help save his 64-year-old aunt Hassana, back in Beirut. He diagnosed her in 2022 after she told him that she felt tired all the time and underwent various tests. The woman he calls his “second mom” is doing well, despite struggles to buy medication due to the lack of access to bank funds in Lebanon.

Hassana Mouhieddine with her nephew, Dr. Tarek Mouhieddine

“I’m always going to be afraid that the disease is going to progress or come back at some point,” he said. “Lebanon doesn’t have as many options as people in the U.S. do. Once you exhaust your first option, and maybe your second option, then you don’t have any other options. Here, we have outpatients who exhaust option number 15 and go to option number 16. That’s definitely not the case over there.”

For now, Dr. Mouhieddine is treating patients and working to launch clinical trials into smoldering myeloma. “His work ethic is incredible,” said his colleague, Dr. Chari. “He has seen multiple projects to publication, and he develops deep connections with his patients and follows up on their care whether or not he is in clinic on a particular day.”

Dr. Parekh, another colleague, said Dr. Mouhieddine can even be a role model. “Other trainees may benefit from thinking about their career early on and exploring both lab and clinical research projects, so that they can develop the necessary experience to be competitive in academia later on.”

His workload can a burden for Dr. Mouhieddine, who is Muslim. He expressed regret that his busy schedule does not always permit him to fast during Ramadan. On a nonmedical front, his recent efforts have paid off. In March 2023 Dr. Mouhieddine became a U.S. citizen.

“It’s surreal,” he said, “but also a dream come true. I feel very grateful, like it’s like an appreciation of who I am, what I’ve done, and what I can do for this country.”

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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