Comprehensive Research Enterprise Grows

Based on their own basic research, William Gillanders, MD, senior scientist Xiuli Zhang, MD, and colleagues have developed a breast cancer vaccine now in clinical trials.

The Department of Surgery was ranked first in National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding among departments of surgery nationwide for 2015,* an important measure of success in a challenging funding environment. The funding enables researchers to advance basic science, improve health at the population level, and push the boundaries of clinical treatment.

Basic and Translational Research

Research laboratories in oncology, transplant immunology and immune therapy for breast cancer continue to break new ground, often collaborating with labs in other departments and the Elizabeth H. and James S. McDonnell III Genome Institute at Washington University. Immunotherapy research led to the development of a breast cancer vaccine targeting the mammaglobin-A protein and two other personalized breast cancer vaccines using the patient’s DNA or peptides, which are all now being tested in clinical trials. A new National Cancer Institute SPORE grant will fund translational research in pancreas cancer, including promising drug development and immunotherapy projects resulting in clinical trials.

Public Health Research

Public Health Sciences faculty conduct research and provide professional and community education and outreach. Their efforts focus on preventing cancer and other diseases, promoting population health, and improving quality of and access to health care. Through a research partnership with Southern Illinois University, they are working to reduce cancer disparities in rural areas. Researchers also developed a health insurance decision-making support tool for people enrolling in the Affordable Care Act (see Public Health Sciences News section) and lead the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Center, which identifies best practices in preventing, treating and monitoring clinical conditions. Public Health Sciences has the highest level of funding among the department’s divisions.

Clinical Research

The department’s Clinical Research and Data Management (CRDM) office has a major support role in high-profile trials, such as those testing an emergency-use blood-clotting agent in trauma patients and the continued expansion of performing aortic valve replacements via a catheter rather than open-heart surgery. The office is also encouraging more surgeons to initiate trials and seek funding through partnerships with industry, in areas such as testing breast reconstruction materials and surgical devices.

*Blue Ridge Institute for Medical Research


Department Chair Tim Eberlein, MD, far right, with young faculty investigators

Young investigators are a key component of maintaining a growing, vibrant research environment. The Department of Surgery fosters this group of surgeon-scientists, basic science and public health researchers through multiple levels of mentoring, including a monthly meeting led by Vice Chair for Research William Gillanders, MD, and Department Chair Timothy Eberlein, MD. One of the young researchers presents a research project each month, and discussions include ways to improve the science, the pitfalls of grant submissions and when to start working on additional funding once a grant is approved. Amy Moore, MD, a peripheral nerve researcher, and trauma researcher Isaiah Turnbull, MD, say the feedback is invaluable. “The fact that Dr. Eberlein and Dr. Gillanders commit time and resources to the group conveys how important our work is to them,” says Turnbull.

Washington University hosted the 6th Annual Patient Centered Outcomes Research (PCOR) symposium in April 2016, featuring researchers from around the country who sought to identify best practices in the prevention, treatment and monitoring of clinical conditions and health delivery systems. The theme was translation of PCOR findings into policy and practice. Speakers discussed topics such as how patient experience informs research; how to translate research into practice in rural communities; sharing hospital discharge information with community health providers to reduce readmissions; engaging patients in medical rehabilitation; aligning goals between surgeons and patients; and the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute review process. Public Health Sciences Associate Professor Mary Politi, PhD, a PCOR