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Gillanders named Mary Culver Professor of Surgery

Dr. Gillanders celebrates his professorship installation with Chair of the Department of Surgery John A. Olson, Jr., Timothy Eberlein, director of Siteman Cancer Center, and David H. Perlmutter, Dean of the School of Medicine.

On Thursday, April 18 William Gillanders, MD, was installed as the Mary Culver Professor of Surgery. The ceremony was held at the Connor Auditorium in the Farrell Learning and Teaching Center. Gillanders is lauded as exceptionally talented faculty. His tenure at WashU has been punctuated by breakthroughs in cancer research and excellence in patient survival. His contributions to neoantigen vaccine research have yielded hopeful results for the field of oncological therapy. Gillanders was joined by several members of his family for his installation, along with department and university leadership, residents and trainees.

Mary Culver was a local philanthropist, whose gift to the University in 1916 helped to establish the Department of Surgery, which was named in her honor.

“We are so fortunate to be able to bestow this endowed professorship to Will,” says David H. Perlmutter, MD, dean of the Washington University School of Medicine. “He has had an amazing career dedicated to improving the outcomes of breast cancer, and more recently, pancreatic cancer.”

Gillanders first joined the department for his general surgery residency in 1991 after getting his medical degree from Duke University. During his training he focused on immunology as a research fellow. His work in translational research in cancer immunotherapy and the development of neoantigen cancer vaccines firmly have their roots in his residency and fellowship, where he began to explore that subject critically.

Leadership, Peer Recognition

“Dr. Gillanders’ contributions continue to shape the way oncologists respond to cancer,” says Ryan Fields, MD, chief of the Section of Surgical Oncology, Kim and Tim Eberlein Distinguished Professor of Surgery. “His research and dedication to improving long-term outcomes for cancer patients has been critical to the continuous success of the Section of Surgical Oncology and the medical community at large benefits from his breakthroughs and continued support.”

For the past fifteen years, Gillanders’ work has been dedicated to developing personalized cancer vaccines, which are yielding favorable results from clinical trials. He has produced over 150 articles on translational and clinical research during his tenure, which have been cited thousands of times. In the midst of his research, Gillanders’ clinical focus has been in thyroid and parathyroid surgery, as well as and breast cancer care. Gillanders regularly performs surgery to treat several forms of cancer.

Among his research, Gillanders led a clinical trial to evaluate the safety of mammaglobin-A DNA vaccine in metastatic breast cancer patients. The trial targeted a protein present in almost all breast cancer cases. The vaccine used in the trial trained the immune system to find and destroy cells with this protein. Gillanders recognizes that his goal of making vaccines a reality for effectively treating cancer is a career-long goal, and not one that could be reached overnight.

“I’ve known Will for thirty years, now and it is my pleasure to say that he is a consummate surgeon-scientist,” says John A. Olson Jr., MD, PhD, William K. Bixby Endowed Professor, chair of the Department of Surgery. “I realized early on that he is not just a gifted surgeon, he is a real scientist.” Olson attributes Gillanders’ rigor as a scientist for the value his research continues to provide the department.

A Consummate Scientist

An avid cyclist, Gillanders divides his time as a scientist, an oncological surgeon and an educator. Gillanders affirms his ongoing commitment to fostering a research environment in which trainees continue to perform at the highest level nationally. He attributes his naming for this professorship to his research accomplishments primarily, acknowledging his contributions across clinical, research and educational efforts.

“I consider it an incredible honor to be named the Mary Culver Professor of Surgery,” says Gillanders. “I feel like I have a foot in multiple different worlds, as a surgeon-scientist. I love my job.”

His laboratory is focused on translational research, which in his words is “dedicated to taking advantage of all the advances made by basic scientists and translate them to the clinic to help patients.”

As an educator, he works with resident physicians and medical students as the Surgical Oncology training program director. The program is focused on training the next generation of surgeon-scientists.

He recently published an abstract that provides a blueprint for surgical department leaders and academic institutions to optimize support to surgeon-scientists. The paper has recommendations for a collaborative approach that encompasses the expertise of everyone in the scientific process to bridge skill gaps. It promotes departmental mentorship to facilitate success for trainees.