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Never a Doubt About a Career in Medicine for Anne S. Tsao, MD


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Anne S. Tsao, MD

Anne S. Tsao, MD

There was no epiphany or family influences, as long as she can remember; Anne S. Tsao, MD, always wanted to be a doctor or, because of her love for caring for sick animals, a veterinarian. Dr. Tsao was born in Fountain Creek, Pennsylvania, but her parents moved to a suburb just outside of Chicago when she was too young to recollect her birthplace. “I was brought up in a wooded area and was always bringing small animals home to care for them. I always knew I wanted to be in health care, so becoming a doctor was a natural career path,” said Dr. Tsao.

Early Leap to College

Dr. Tsao continued: “I did have a bit of an unusual career path. I actually skipped my junior year of high school and entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston when I was 16. Even though I was quite young, I was fortunate in that MIT had a group of accelerated students about my age. Of course, there was a lot of growing up to do, so one of the first things I did was to join a sorority to have a good support group. Although my parents had some trepidation that I was going away to college at such a young age, they were very supportive and confident that I’d make good decisions.”

Besides my research in [mesothelioma], I also became an advocate on the national level for these patients.
— Anne S. Tsao, MD

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Dr. Tsao graduated MIT with a BS, majoring in molecular biology and entered the Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago. “While there, I minored in political science, which helped lay the groundwork for my interest in advocacy,” she noted. “The Pritzker School of Medicine has a wonderful cancer ward, and I was fascinated by how the medication given to the very sick patients with leukemia made them better.”

Attracted to Doctor-Patient Interaction

After receiving her medical degree in 1998, Dr. Tsao began her internal medicine residency at Indiana University School of Medicine. “I always knew I wanted to specialize in one field of medicine, but at the time I wasn’t clear on which discipline I wanted to pursue. However, when I rotated on the oncology ward, I came in contact with patients who needed special help and was immediately attracted to the special doctor-patient interaction with these patients. That was what further sparked my desire to become an oncologist,” she shared.

Mentors Credited With Career Path

Asked whether there were any noted mentors who helped guide her career path, Dr. Tsao responded, “I credit my support system and mentors along the way who have helped shape my career. During my residency at the Indiana University Department of Internal Medicine, Dr. Patrick Loehrer was a big influence. And when I did my medical oncology fellowship at MD Anderson Cancer Center, Waun Ki Hong, MD, was my mentor from day one. When I was a fellow, Dr. Hong was Division Chief of Thoracic Oncology. He was such an important mentor for me, which was largely part of the reason I went into thoracic oncology.”

She continued: “Although my main interest was in lung cancer, after treating several of Dr. Hong’s patients with mesothelioma, I became very interested in that malignancy as well. As you know, it’s an orphan disease, and unfortunately most of it is caused by environmental exposure to asbestos or other carcinogens. Besides my research in this disease, I also became an advocate on the national level for these patients, trying to ensure that they had access to high-quality care and other resources to help them in their fight with this challenging disease.”

A Road to Research

Under Dr. Hong’s mentorship, Dr. Tsao received a K12 Physician Scientist Award to study mesothelioma and identify novel targets. “I did clinical trials looking at the platelet-derived growth factor receptor pathway, and that work led me to national cooperative group trials in which we tried to help people with mesothelioma by using combinations of targeted agents and systemic chemotherapy. Dr. Hong also helped me with a Department of Defense–funded trial in which I was the principal investigator. On that trial, we looked at dasatinib (Sprycel) in a window-of-opportunity neoadjuvant trial in mesothelioma; this study helped us understand the biology of the disease, which in turn is leading to better treatments for our patients.”

We’ve seen remarkable promise in immunotherapies in solid tumors, so it is up to us in academia to lead the way and develop well-designed trials to advance the field.
— Anne S. Tsao, MD

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Hired by MD Anderson Cancer Center after completing her fellowship at the Houston campus in 2004, Dr. Tsao is part of a mesothelioma focus group, which works closely with the hospital’s surgeons, research nurses, lung specialists, and radiologists. The team makes every effort to match each patient with a clinical trial that it considers to best suit each patient’s case.

Advancing Awareness of Clinical Trials

Dr. Tsao noted that much of her work at MD Anderson Cancer Center in her current role as Director of the Mesothelioma Program is programmatic work that advances awareness in the external world about their clinical trial efforts. “I also focus on strategies to ensure that our various research efforts are adequately funded. And that comes from several sources other than just federal grants, such as philanthropic grants and funding from the pharmaceutical industry. I also have to coordinate all of our multidisciplinary care sectors to provide our patients with the best clinical care possible along with the necessary support services that many need,” noted Dr. Tsao.

Asked to address the state of care in mesothelioma, Dr. Tsao responded, “We’ve seen an explosion of unprecedented studies in this disease, including work in antiangiogenics and immunotherapy. We’ve seen remarkable promise in immunotherapies in solid tumors, so it is up to us in academia to lead the way and develop well-designed trials to advance the field.”

Dr. Tsao described life and work at MD Anderson Cancer Center as a unique experience. “All of our clinical care teams are super focused on individualized cancer care for our patients. And because of the huge volume of patients who come to us from all over the world, our researchers have the ability to develop a rewarding career studying a rare tumor type, which also has huge downstream benefits for oncology moving forward,” she explained.

Asked what she does to unwind from her challenging work at MD Anderson, Dr. Tsao replied, “My husband and I are passionate divers and love to dive in exotic places like Costa Rica and Belize. We’ve been all over, but I think Central America is our favorite.” ■

DISCLOSURE: Dr. Tsao reported no conflicts of interest.


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