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Huntsman Translational Scholars: Thomas Varghese Jr., MD, MS

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Thomas Varghese Jr., MD, MS
Thomas Varghese Jr., MD, MS

Huntsman Cancer Institute has established The Society of Huntsman Translational Scholars, an initiative that recognizes excellence in the discipline of translational science. Translational researchers extend basic discoveries made in the laboratory and apply them to solve clinical problems and benefit patients through new diagnostic and therapeutic approaches. Three physician-scientists were recently recognized by leaders at Huntsman Cancer Institute and the University of Utah with a Huntsman Translational Scholar award.

Recognition as a Huntsman Translational Scholar provides financial support to promote cancer-focused studies that accelerate the development of new treatments. The awardees will also work as a cohesive team to share best practices and mentor other scientists interested in translational cancer research. “The Huntsman Translational Scholars is an initiative designed to recognize and advance the careers of exceptional scientists who are making strides in translational research,” says Huntsman Cancer Institute Director and CEO Mary Beckerle.

Thomas Varghese Jr., MD, MS, is a Huntsman Cancer Institute (Huntsman Cancer Institute) physician-scientist, chief value officer at Huntsman Cancer Institute, head of the section of general thoracic surgery, and program director of the Cardiothoracic Surgery Fellowship Program at the University of Utah (U of U). He is also an associate professor in the department of surgery at the U of U.

Dr. Varghese was born in India and came to the United States when he was one year old. He was raised in the suburbs of Chicago. A knee injury in high school led to surgery and his initial exposure to team dynamics in the medical setting. This experience sparked an interest in medicine that continued after his family moved back to India following his sophomore year in high school.

Varghese trained at the Government Medical College, Trivandrum, University of Kerala. He completed his general surgery residency at Northwestern University in Chicago, obtaining a master’s in clinical investigation during his research fellowship. Varghese continued his training at the University of Michigan, where he completed a cardiothoracic surgery fellowship. He served as the director of thoracic surgery at Harborview Medical Center, University of Washington (UW), for eight years.

While at UW, Varghese created the Strong for Surgery program. “For me a crucial question is, why are we waiting until the day of surgery to optimize the health of surgical patients? What happens if we shift to thinking about how we can help our patients improve their outcomes before surgery?” As of the end of 2018, the program is active at 230 sites across the nation, with plans for further expansion nationwide and globally in the years ahead.

Varghese was recruited to Huntsman Cancer Institute in 2015 to build a center of excellence in general thoracic surgery. His innovative research at Huntsman Cancer Institute includes a collaboration with Paul LaStayo, PhD, professor of physical therapy and athletic training at the U of U, and Neli Ulrich, PhD, director of the Comprehensive Cancer Center at Huntsman Cancer Institute and professor of population health sciences at the U of U. Together they’ve launched the Precision Exercise Prescription (PEP) clinical trial for patients undergoing elective lung cancer resections. Funded by the National Cancer Institute, the goal of the PEP trial is to learn whether an exercise program tailored for each person improves long-term outcomes after lung cancer surgery.

“The goal is not just to get the patients cancer-free but also to enable them to live cancer free—to get them in the best optimal shape for their surgery and in the best shape of their lives going forwards.”

Varghese acknowledges his approach to research is non-traditional. He’s not working on cells in a lab, but he points out he still adheres to rigorous scientific principles.

“Translational scholars are academicians involved in studies and innovations that implement scientific methodologies in clinical settings. Huntsman Cancer Institute leadership is focusing on supporting and embracing investigators who are living on that edge,” he says. “I hope funding for unconventional researchers like me is a sign of things to come. Naturally, we support traditional basic science research but we are also pursuing new directions. We are funding research projects in areas not traditionally emphasized and that provide rich opportunities for improved clinical results. If I’m the unconventional person that represents that model, I’m all for it.”

He is mindful of the high potential of his work to improve outcomes for all patients, but he points out cancer patients are a uniquely motivated group and they know their odds. “Every cancer patient I’ve ever taken care of is always worried about one thing—Am I going to live or die? As their surgeon, I have to acknowledge that concern and be honest about their prognoses, but at the same time I can offer ideas that empower them to adopt behaviors likely to improve their health,” he says.

The reason Varghese wanted to work at Huntsman Cancer Institute in 2015 is still valid today: the people. “We have a phenomenal group of talented individuals who are constantly looking for opportunities to take the next leap,” he says. “We’ve done an amazing amount of work in a short time, and yet, the organization as a whole is not ready to relax. It’s always, Where do we go next?

Cancer touches all of us.