Mesothelioma pioneer Dr. David Sugarbaker is taking his surgical and administrative expertise to Texas, where he hopes to create a bigger and even better platform to help patients with asbestos cancer.
Sugarbaker told his staff last week at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston that he has become director of the upcoming Lung Institute at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
Although Baylor has not officially announced the hiring yet, Sugarbaker has begun implementing his plan to create a Mesothelioma Specialty Center that will be second to none, including his world-renowned practice in Boston.
“The goal is to take everything we’ve done with mesothelioma and apply it on a larger scale now,” Sugarbaker told Asbestos.com in an interview Wednesday. “What we build in Texas, there will be nothing else like it in the world.”
His move will not become official until May 1, but he expects the clinical portion of the new Lung Institute to begin serving patients as early as July. There also will be a Research Institute with talented scientists and laboratories dedicated to finding a cure for mesothelioma.
“To me, this was such a great opportunity. A dream job for me,” he said. “It’s not career-changing. It’s just changing to a bigger stadium to work in. My commitment to patients as a caretaker, as a doctor, will be as strong, or stronger, than ever.”
Sugarbaker also will be chief of thoracic surgery, a title he also held in Boston, where he is leaving behind the world’s most acclaimed mesothelioma cancer center, which he helped build.
He earned a reputation through more than two decades in Boston as America’s foremost authority on mesothelioma, the rare and aggressive cancer caused primarily by exposure to asbestos.
Sugarbaker founded and directed the International Mesothelioma Program at Brigham & Women’s Hospital at Harvard Medical School. He also trained a number of highly-regarded thoracic surgeons, some of whom continue to practice in Boston. Others left to begin their own practices, serving patients around the country who would not have access to a mesothelioma specialist.
“In this field, he is the gold standard,” said Brigham thoracic surgeon Abraham “Avi” Lebenthal, M.D., one of several mesothelioma specialists today who trained under Sugarbaker in Boston. “He is Dr. Mesothelioma.”
Sugarbaker is credited with helping refine the complex extrapleural pneumonectomy surgery, which has extended the lives of thousands of mesothelioma patients. They have traveled from all parts of America, and from around the world, to seek his surgical opinion on a mesothelioma diagnosis.
Under his leadership, the division of thoracic surgery at Brigham grew into one of the largest in the country with 14 staff surgeons, three research associates and more than 3,000 thoracic cases annually. They see more mesothelioma patients today than anywhere in the U.S., and many of those patients flock to the center because of Sugarbaker’s reputation.
The laboratory at his International Mesothelioma Program has been successful in helping develop more personalized therapy programs for patients, the growing multimodality treatment approach, and in developing earlier diagnostic tools through research.
“This is a chance now to do it all on a larger scale,” he said. “The commitment, the support is there. We can help patients even more now. And that’s exciting to me.”
Sugarbaker is published extensively in many of the leading journals and textbooks. He has lectured on mesothelioma surgery at both medical centers and numerous association meetings around the world. He is seen by both peers and patients as a leader in the field.
He started at Brigham in 1988 and comes from a family of doctors. Four of his siblings – including peritoneal mesothelioma specialist Dr. Paul Sugarbaker in Washington, D.C. – also followed in their father’s footsteps and became doctors.
Sugarbaker immersed himself in mesothelioma almost by accident once he started at Brigham, where the nearby shipyards and heavy asbestos exposure produced an inordinate amount of patients who were dying quickly.
“Early in my career, it was laid on my doorstep,” he told Asbestos.com in 2012. “And I took it as a challenge. Although it was a difficult cancer to treat, with relatively poor outcomes, you had to stick with it. When we started making significant strides, I was drawn to that.” He started IMP in 2002, and it attracted many of the best and brightest from a variety of fields. The collaborative approach he preached was attractive to many.
Although the majority of pleural mesothelioma patients in the U.S. do not live beyond two years, Sugarbaker has former patients who have lived 10 years and beyond. That’s what motivates him today.
“People are told there is no hope, yet they are willing to plow forward, looking for answers,” he said. “Their courage never seems to wane. That’s still inspiring to me.”