International Cancer Researcher Begins Leading AHN Cancer Institute
He was only 7 years old, but David Bartlett, MD, already knew he wanted to practice medicine. His mother died from leukemia that year, instilling in him a lifelong passion for oncology therapy and research.
“I decided to go into surgical oncology because I enjoyed the technical aspect of surgery and really being able to make a difference with a scalpel, but oncology was always my love and dedication and that has continued,” Dr. Bartlett said.
Today, he’s an internationally recognized cancer researcher and a pioneer in the use of highly advanced surgical therapies for abdominal cancers. In May, Dr. Bartlett became Chair of the Allegheny Health Network (AHN) Cancer Institute, where he leads a multidisciplinary team of more than 200 physicians and 500 advanced-practice oncology professionals. He also oversees the network’s oncology clinical trials and laboratory research programs.
“What I find appealing about the AHN Cancer Institute is the trajectory in which it’s going. It’s building and growing, and the staff are so dedicated to their patients and doing the right thing for the right reasons,” Dr. Bartlett said.
“My vision is that we continue providing excellent, efficient care that has already been built here so patients can get cancer behind them quickly. And also to grow our new Academic Center so that our cutting-edge research and innovative therapies are not only for patients in Pittsburgh but also a resource to patients across the country who have difficult cancers and need clinical trial options.”
Dr. Bartlett specializes in all aspects of surgical oncology, with expertise in peritoneal surface malignancies, the management of complex abdominal malignancies, gastric cancer, and abdominal sarcomas. He will focus his first months at AHN on institute leadership and will practice at AHN Cancer Institute – Saint Vincent in Erie.
The path to acclaimed surgeon
Raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Dr. Bartlett graduated from the University of Texas School of Medicine. He completed a residency in general surgery at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, where he met his wife, Susan. Dr. Bartlett went on to complete a fellowship in surgical oncology at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and also performed clinical research at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
Passionate about oncology research, Dr. Bartlett began his medical career as a senior investigator in the surgery division of the Center for Cancer Research at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). There, he performed cutting-edge laboratory research in viral-based immune therapy.
“Cancer is a unique puzzle, figuring out how to find every cancer cell in your body and get rid of it without hurting the host is what interests me and drives me to research this disease,” he said.
Dr. Bartlett also helped to develop and refine regional perfusion therapy, using surgery to deliver chemotherapy directly to different regions of the body for metastatic cancers. Among these therapies is hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemoperfusion (HIPEC), which involves a surgeon removing all visible signs of cancer then circulating heated chemotherapeutic drugs in the abdominal cavity to kill the remaining cancer cells.
“Peritoneal cancers are extremely challenging to treat with standard therapies, so this is one way we try and get ahead of this very difficult disease,” Dr. Bartlett said.
He joined AHN from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, where he has served since 2001, and held several leadership positions, including vice chair for surgical oncology and gastrointestinal surgery services, director of the David C. Koch Regional Perfusion Cancer Therapy Center, chief of surgery for Shadyside Hospital, and the Bernard Fisher Professor of Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
Leader, collaborator and researcher
For the last year, Dr. Bartlett has served as president of the Society of Surgical Oncology, a professional group whose mission is to improve patient care by advancing the science, education, and practice of cancer surgery worldwide. He said the role has provided him with an enormous opportunity to get to know oncology physicians across the world, sharing experiences, knowledge, and technical advances.
“It is important to collaborate outside of AHN to stay abreast of the latest research and work together in a complementary fashion to bring new treatments to our patients,” he said.
Dr. Bartlett’s current research involves developing vaccinia virus as a therapy for cancer. As a live virus, it infects and kills cancer cells. He is looking forward to continuing his research at AHN.
“It’s extremely important for AHN Cancer Institute to have a strong translational research program that then brings new therapies to patients for testing and then hopefully to market,” Dr. Bartlett said. “The most rewarding aspect of being a physician is having patients who have lost hope and who have been told there are no other treatment options, and having the ability to say I think there is hope with a novel therapy that can make a big difference in their lives.”
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