WASHINGTON SPIRIT • Winter 2002  

Timothy J. Eberlein
• Bixby Professor of Surgery
• Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Distinguished Professor
• Chair, Department of Surgery
• Director, Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and the School of Medicine

Developing a National Center for Cancer Research and Treatment

By Diane Duke Williams

When Timothy J. Eberlein was in college at the University of Pittsburgh, he met a young surgeon who also was the vice chairman of the Department of Surgery. Larry Carey would become Eberlein's role model and make a lasting impression on him.

"Carey was always very personable and a very smart guy who was extraordinarily honest and efficient," Eberlein says. "He had an extremely busy clinical practice but also had a big laboratory."

Today, it's obvious that Eberlein, a surgical oncologist, has followed in Carey's footsteps. He is the Bixby Professor of Surgery, chairman of the Department of Surgery, and the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Distinguished Professor at the University's School of Medicine, and director of the Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and the School of Medicine. Widely published, Eberlein is renowned for his clinical expertise in the management of breast cancer, gastrointestinal malignancies, and soft-tissue sarcoma.

"Imagine a highly accomplished surgeon, researcher, and educator who emerges as a great leader of two major programs—our premier Department of Surgery and our newly established, NCI-designated Siteman Cancer Center," says William A. Peck, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine. "Tim does the work of two or three people and does it very well. His high intelligence, limitless energy, infectious enthusiasm, and wonderful persona are among the qualities that allow him to accomplish all of this and more."

Eberlein, who joined the School of Medicine five years ago from Harvard Medical School, is proud of key accomplishments both at the Siteman Cancer Center and in the Department of Surgery.

The Siteman Cancer Center last year received designation from the National Cancer Institute—the only center with this stamp of approval within a 240-mile radius of St. Louis—and now has a successful, integrated, multidisciplinary cancer program. At the center last year, University physicians treated almost 6,000 new cancer patients and provided follow-up care for more than 28,000 cancer survivors. The center also now offers more than 250 clinical trials.

"Tim has the ability to get the troops moving in the right direction," says John F. DiPersio, the Lewis T. and Rosalind B. Apple Professor of Medicine, chief of the Division of Oncology, and deputy director of the Siteman Cancer Center. "He is always positive, supportive, and appreciative of everybody. That's the kind of person you just can't say 'no' to."

Additionally, the Department of Surgery has doubled its peer-reviewed grant support from the National Institutes of Health and made some positive changes under Eberlein's leadership. "We have phenomenal people in surgery. We have been able to retain those people, and we've recruited other key individuals," Eberlein says, adding that his wife, Kim, has been an extraordinary advocate and ambassador for the University.

Gregorio A. Sicard, professor of surgery and head of the Division of General Surgery, says Eberlein has a tremendous ability to recognize, retain, and attract the future leaders of academic surgery. He adds: "Dr. Eberlein exemplifies all the characteristics of a great leader—friendliness, caring, commitment to excellence in research and clinical activities. He is a class act."

Although he majored in biology in college and planned to go to medical school, Eberlein's only personal glimpses of the medical field were through visits to his pediatrician as a child. One summer during college, his brother, Thomas, got him a job sterilizing operating room instruments in a Veterans Administration Hospital in Washington, D.C. At the end of the summer, Eberlein had a chance to become a volunteer surgical assistant and hold retractors during operations. The first time he walked into the operating room, he knew what he was going to do for the rest of his life. "I can remember it as though it happened three minutes ago," he says. "It was an epiphany. From that moment on, I was focused on a career in surgery."

After graduating from medical school at the University of Pittsburgh, surgical oncology was Eberlein's first rotation during his internship at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. He greatly admired Dick Wilson, the attending physician on the service, and also decided that specializing in oncology was a perfect way to blend his interest in basic science and the clinical practice of medicine. "I realized early on that while surgery and radiation and chemotherapy were wonderful advances, they were not going to cure cancer," Eberlein says. "We had to figure out some other mechanism and understand the disease biology better, and that's how I got into immunology and basic science."

With Eberlein at the helm, researchers at the Siteman Cancer Center currently are trying to identify genes associated with the development and spread of cancer—with the help of the Washington University Genome Sequencing Center. Other scientists are studying the genes that metabolize medication, researching a whole new class of anti-cancer compounds to develop more tailored chemotherapy regimens. Still other researchers are exploring the potential of various chemopreventive agents to prevent or reverse precancerous changes in individuals at high risk of developing cancer.

"Dr. Timothy Eberlein has been an outstanding and effective founding director of the Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Center," says Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton. "Our community is in his debt for the remarkable work that he has been doing to develop one of the nation's leading centers for cancer treatment and research. Tim himself is a leading contributor in surgical oncology, but beyond his personal work, he has inspired others and developed community-wide support. The development of the Siteman Cancer Center is having a transforming effect in our region, and I am grateful for Tim's excellent and sensitive leadership."

Diane Duke Williams is a free-lance writer based in St. Louis, Missouri.

 

With Eberlein at the helm, researchers at the Siteman Cancer Center are trying to identify genes associated with the development and spread of cancer—with the help of the Washington University Genome Sequencing Center.