Dr. Peter P. Lee knew from a young age that he wanted to do something bigger than himself. Though his approach has not always been conventional, he did exactly what he set out to do — help change the world of medicine for the better.
Lee was one of the 24 honorees inducted into the Asian Hall of Fame during the 19th annual induction ceremony, where he was recognized as a medical innovator and leader in the field of immuno-oncology.
The now L.A.-based Asian Hall of Fame was founded in 2004 by the Robert Chinn Foundation to elevate Asian leaders in underrepresented areas. In 2020, under the leadership of President/CEO Maki Hsieh, the Asian Hall of Fame was established as a nonprofit organization.
Its mission became to educate the public about important Asian contributions to the United States and the world, advance early-career development, and promote Asian artistic excellence and cross-cultural narratives.
Lee, a longtime San Marino resident, is a Billy Wilder endowed professor and immuno-oncology chair at City of Hope — the cancer center which was recently ranked among the top 10 hospitals in the state by the U.S. News and World Report.
The doctor, who was a tenured professor at Stanford University prior to being recruited to City of Hope in 2011, is a pioneer in understanding the immune system in cancer patients and how the disease impacts immune responses, with the goal of developing novel treatments to restore the body’s own natural immune response as a way to combat the disease.
The doctor’s research has been published in more than 120 peer-reviewed publications, and he has trained many students and postdoctoral fellows over his career thus far. Lee is also an elected member of the American Society for Clinical Investigation and a recipient of the Damon Runyon Scholar Award, American Cancer Society Research Scholar Award, Department of Defense Era of Hope Scholar Award for Breast Cancer Research and Department of Defense Multi-Team Award for Breast Cancer Research, to name a few.
Lee was nominated to the Asian Hall of Fame by his older brother Omar, a 2022 inductee. There were 500 nominations this year. When Lee heard the news that he was ultimately selected to join the 2023 class of Asian Hall of Fame inductees, he said the award held a special reverence for him — it was more than just an achievement, it was another opportunity to be of service to society.
“Being chosen to be an inductee certainly felt like an honor, but it also felt like a responsibility,” Lee told the Tribune. “This isn’t about me, it’s about the community and it’s about giving back.”
Hsieh said the Asian Hall Fame was proud to include Lee in the organization’s history of highlighting industry leaders like him.
“Family legacy is an inspiring force behind Asian contributions in American society and service to humanity,” Hsieh said. “The Lee family is a stellar example of leadership within a generation, evident in how Dr. Peter Lee is not only a world-class physician, but also a researcher, innovator and tireless contributor to curing cancer — one of civilization’s most difficult challenges. Asian Hall of Fame is honored to immortalize his compassionate work and advancement of humanity for generations to come.”
When Lee was 11 years old, he immigrated to the U.S. from Hong Kong, with his parents staying behind.
Lee’s experience in the U.S. early on without his parents did not garner the easiest of memories and neither did his childhood. Lee lived with his older brother, who was only in his 20s at the time and moved multiple times. They resided in Southern California for the first year and eventually moved to Northern California for a period of years.
Growing up, Lee recalled being a target for bullies as a child because he was Asian.
“Kids at that age are pretty mean, especially boys, so they picked on me a lot. … Some tried to fight me, so that was a kind of a tough start,” said Lee, who spoke very little English when he first arrived from Hong Kong.
“I had to find my own way for a long time, so I would say it was a tough journey,” Lee said. “But I think it made me independent, it forced me to learn a lot about how to take care of myself and how to do everything on my own. It toughened me up.”
Reflecting on the hardships of his upbringing, including the discrimination he faced, Lee persevered despite the challenges.
“I think being Asian has been a mixed bag,” Lee said. “I certainly had my share of people treating me differently or giving me a hard time because I’m Asian, but I just had to look beyond that.”
When it came to developing his outlook on life and honing his own identity, Lee found his footing by forging a path toward medicine fairly early, in high school, with science piquing his interest.
“I was always curious about how the body worked and how diseases worked,” Lee said. “I also felt like I cared about people and wanted to do something that not only benefited myself, but others in society. That eventually led me to medicine.”
Lee earned his medical degree at UC San Diego and completed fellowships at both Stanford University and UC San Francisco.
Lee got his start in clinical medicine and eventually was drawn to helping cancer patients because of the rough conditions of the disease, combined with there being such a great need. With cancer patients once limited to chemotherapy and radiation as the main course of treatment, Lee wanted to explore alternative treatment plans that were more effective and less harsh on the body.
“Along the way, I saw a lot of patients suffer and not make it, and they motivated me to try and do better,” Lee said. “Twenty to 25 years ago, we knew much less about the immune system than we know today, so it was an opportunity to really think about a new field and apply it to cancer.
“When I first started to study the immune system in patients and tried to develop immune-based treatments for cancer back then, it was a totally different time — nobody believed in it,” he added. “If you talked to people in cancer research, or oncologists, people used to laugh at the notion of studying the immune system in cancer or trying to develop immune-based cancer therapies, so I was kind of an oddball.”
Though it has been a hard-fought road, Lee said it is now widely accepted in the medical community that the immune system plays a critical role in treating cancer.
“The future of cancer treatment is using the immune system and immunotherapy,” Lee said. “So, it has been a 180-degree shift in the field.”
Another revolution that Lee has lived through and is helping to propel the field of medicine forward is the microbiome; similarly with immunotherapies, the microbiome was a “lonely existence” to study, because “very few thought about it or believed in it” at first.
“It is now known that there are as many bacteria that live in our bodies as there are cells in our body,” Lee said. “In essence, we are half and half — we are half human beings and half bacteria, numerically. So, it turns out they play a very important role and have evolved with our bodies over millions of years.”
Lee created a company called Osel Inc. that focuses on developing drugs for the microbiome. Currently, he said the company has two drugs that are in advanced clinical development. One is for women’s health, which Lee said has shown that it can significantly reduce risks of preterm birth in women who are most at risk.
In a 61-subject study, Lee said he and his team have seen the benefits of this drug at work and hope it can one day do good for more people.
“Using our microbiome product, we were able to reduce incidents of preterm birth in the study’s population by about half,” said Lee, who noted that preterm birth is the number one cause of childhood mortality in the world.
“There are risk factors that are known today for these women, but right now there is nothing to be given to them to try and reduce their risk. This product could be a huge game-changer. … We are really excited and eager to move that forward and get it approved as a drug so it can benefit many people.”
The second drug Lee has in development is a gastrointestinal microbiome drug that has shown effectiveness as an immunotherapy for cancer.
“My two worlds converged,” Lee said about his research on the microbiome connecting back to immune-based therapies.
Both trials have been done with Lee’s colleagues at City of Hope.
Something Lee prides himself on is thinking outside of the box. As part of that effort, he often collaborates with people in different fields of study, including Caltech professor John Doyle, who specializes in complex dynamical systems.
“I really value smart people from other disciplines and taking a multidisciplinary approach to look at really complicated problems,” Lee said.
Lee and Doyle have been analyzing the immune system and researching cancer with the use of control theory, mathematical modeling and computer simulations to make leaps in their respective fields.
“It’s so common in so many areas of science and medicine to just be going down the same path as everybody else and most of the time, that doesn’t yield great advances,” Lee said.
“There’s a lot of science and medicine that is incremental where people kind of take baby steps … and John Doyle and I would rather take a different approach to things. And that can be a tough journey, being looked at like an outsider, but I think that’s how advances happen — by taking bold, new approaches.”
Lee has always taken the road less traveled in his work, and it has paid off for him.
“I’ve always felt like I had an internal drive of wanting to make a difference and do something bigger than myself,” Lee said. “I’m willing to fail, or not have the easiest time, to pursue what I believe in — even if no one else seems to.”
He attributes his ambition, in part, to navigating life independently at a young age. But today, Lee has a strong support system. His wife, Milou, and two sons, 20-year-old Kyle and 18-year-old Aaron, are backing him every step of the way.
“Family means everything to me since I had to grow up on my own from age 11, so I’m fortunate enough to have a loving wife who I enjoy doing everything with and two boys,” Lee said.
One of his favorite pastimes are family vacations, Lee said. His youngest son picked their annual summer destination, Norway, after he graduated from San Marino High School in May. For spring break, Lee said they will be going to Japan, a beloved country for experiencing nature and the food. Every winter the family travels to Hawaii, a place Lee has visited about 50 times in his lifetime.
“I really cherish my family and really appreciate their support, and I’m really grateful to have the wife and two sons that I have,” Lee said. “I’m proud of my sons, and I’m looking forward to seeing them do great things and pass me up.”
First published in the Nov. 17 issue of the San Marino Tribune