Remembering Dr. David Sugarbaker and the Treatment He Pioneered

Dr. David Sugarbaker, internationally recognized as one of the most prolific mesothelioma doctors in the world, has died at the age of 65. It’s difficult to put into context the impact that Dr. Sugarbaker had throughout his career, which he dedicated to treating patients with pleural mesothelioma. Known colloquially among his peers and patients as ‘Mr. Mesothelioma’, Dr. Sugarbaker devoted his profession to tackling new procedures for mesothelioma patients.

About Dr. David Sugarbaker

Early Life

Born in Jefferson City, Missouri, Dr. Sugarbaker was virtually destined for the field of medicine, being the son of a surgical oncologist and a nurse. As a young adult, Dr. Sugarbaker assisted his father in the operating room. Being mentored by his father, Dr. Sugarbaker developed a keen interest in surgical oncology.

His brother, Dr. Paul Sugarbaker, was also heavily influenced by his family’s background. Paul served as Chief of the Peritoneal Surface Malignancy Program at the Washington Hospital Center until his retirement in 2021.

Education

Dr. David Sugarbaker studied at Wheaton College and the Cornell University Medical College, graduating in 1979. He then participated in surgical residencies at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH), Boston, and Toronto General Hospital. In 1988, Dr. Sugarbaker began focusing his career on the treatment of pleural mesothelioma, an aggressive form of cancer many oncologists will never come across in their careers.

Career Accomplishments

After completing his residencies, Dr. Sugarbaker became Chief of Surgery at BWH. His work there is well-recognized in the medical community, as Dr. Sugarbaker developed the first non-cardiac thoracic surgery division in the country.

Another major accomplishment at BWH was Dr. Sugarbaker’s initiative in developing the first comprehensive tissue and blood repository, which is now an integral program for collaborative oncological research. While at BWH, Dr. Sugarbaker also began an instructing position as Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School.

Over the past 30 years, he has helped countless families cope with the debilitating disease and worked to improve mortality rates through his advanced treatments.
In 2002 he founded the International Mesothelioma Program, an organization with the goal of finding a cure for pleural mesothelioma. To this day the program attracts patients from all around the world who are willing to take part in clinical trials to improve the field of study for future generations.

Having built up BWH’s mesothelioma program to a world-class facility, Dr. Sugarbaker left the cancer center in 2014 to take his leadership, skills, and knowledge to Texas, where he was a critical player in developing the Baylor Lung Institute.

Dr. Sugarbaker’s Medical Specializations

Over the course of his career, Dr. Sugarbaker developed certain mesothelioma specialties — even contributing to establishing a mesothelioma staging system while at BWH, called the Brigham and Women’s Staging System.

In this Brigham and Women’s mesothelioma staging criteria, stage 1 and 2 patients are deemed eligible for resectable pleural mesothelioma surgeries, a specialty that Dr. Sugarbaker became well-known for.

Pleural Mesothelioma

Dr. Sugarbaker specialized in treating stage 1 and 2 pleural mesothelioma patients.

As the developer of the curative surgical procedure, extrapleural pneumonectomy (EPP), Dr. Sugarbaker was known for aggressively treating early-stage pleural mesothelioma patients and using a multimodal approach to eliminate cancer and send the disease into remission.

“We can help patients even more now, and that’s exciting to me.”

– Dr. David Sugarbaker

Pleural mesothelioma patients who were referred to Dr. Sugarbaker had what’s deemed as resectable mesothelioma, meaning a high likelihood of being removed surgically. During the EPP, Dr. Sugarbaker would remove the affected lung, pleura (lung lining), pericardium (heart lining), and part of the diaphragm.

Dr. Sugarbaker believed that by removing all visible signs of mesothelioma tumors and removing the lung, surrounding tissues, and partial organs, the patient will have a greater likelihood of avoiding recurrence — when the mesothelioma comes back after removal.

Dr. Sugarbaker’s EPP has been taught to countless physicians. Over time, the procedure has become more and more refined, dramatically lowering the risk of complications and increasing surgical success rates. Dr. Sugarbaker found the trimodal treatment approach improved survival rates for pleural mesothelioma patients, with 74% of his patients living for at least 2 years after the operation.

Personalized Multimodal Treatment

Until his death, Dr. Sugarbaker continued to look for new and unconventional ways of treating pleural mesothelioma with a multimodal approach.

The principle behind multimodal therapy is that you can effectively send mesothelioma into remission where it can be managed, provided you combine several treatments together with each one playing their own critical role in the overall strategy.

In order to know which mesothelioma treatment combinations will be most successful, Dr. Sugarbaker and the team at the Mesothelioma Treatment Center personalized medical therapies to each patient based on test results from tumor samples. By looking at a patient’s specific genetic biomarkers found in their tissue and blood samples, Dr. Sugarbaker and his team would determine which treatments are likely to work best for the individual patient.

Based on the patient’s tissue samples, Dr. Sugarbaker and his team would then develop a surgery-based treatment plan that may include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and new and novel treatments available through Baylor’s clinical trials program. Tumor testing also informed Dr. Sugarbaker of the order in which patients should receive these treatments.

Leaving a Legacy of Hope

Very few doctors specialize in the treatment of mesothelioma because, at present, there is no cure. Many procedures are down to trial and error, which deters a lot of doctors because the results can often be disheartening. Dr. Sugarbaker is quoted as saying: “People didn’t want to touch it… I wanted to help these patients”.

As a result of his perseverance, he has extended the lives of hundreds of patients across the US, and his research will undoubtedly save thousands more around the globe. Patients who have worked with Dr. Sugarbaker continue to attest not only to his surgical proficiency but to his compassion and commitment as a leader.

Having given countless patients back their lives, many of Dr. Sugarbaker’s former mesothelioma patients are today known as survivors. Some of them work within the medical community to raise awareness about the importance of aggressive, multimodal therapies like those provided by Dr. Sugarbaker and his team at Baylor Lung Institute.

Our thoughts are with Dr. David Sugarbaker’s family at this heartbreaking time, including his brother, Dr. Paul Sugarbaker. Dr. David Sugarbaker dedicated his life to helping patients cope with such a devastating illness, and many will mourn his unexpected death.

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2 references
  1. Baylor College of Medicine, "David J Sugarbaker, M.D.". Retrieved from: https://www.bcm.edu/people/view/david-sugarbaker-m-d/8a46e330-b193-11e3-a42d-005056b104be. Accessed on August 30, 2018.
  2. Mesothelioma Treatment Center, “How is Mesothelioma Treated?” Retrived from: http://mesotreatmentcenter.org/understanding-mesothelioma/how-is-mesothelioma-treated/. Accessed on January 10, 2018.