In September 2020, Beth Helmink, MD, PhD, joined the Section of Surgical Oncology as an Assistant Professor of Surgery, bringing her expertise in peritoneal malignancies to the Department. Alongside colon and rectal surgeon Sean Glasgow, MD, Helmink hopes to expand the Peritoneal Disease Program at Washington University School of Medicine.
Peritoneal cancer is rare – occurring in only around six out of 1 million people. The disease develops when cancers of the appendix, colon, ovaries or other organs spread to the peritoneum, or the thin layer of epithelial cells that line the inside wall of the abdomen, and cause tumors to grow. Each case of peritoneal cancer is different, and treatment for this disease varies individually. Common treatments include cytoreduction, or the surgical removal of all tumors, or cytoreduction plus heated intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC).
New treatments, chemotherapy agents in particular, developed in the last decades have improved survival rates for patients with colon cancer, leading to increased demand for surgical intervention for metastatic disease. This includes liver and lung metastases, as well as the less common peritoneal metastases. There has been an increased interest nationally to find better systemic therapies, Helmink explains, with particular interest in various types of immunotherapies She plans to conduct her own research at the School of Medicine on the disease as well.
“I’m hoping to build a translational research program here specifically for peritoneal malignancy, characterizing the immune environment within the peritoneum and how we might leverage that to better treat this relatively rare disease,” Helmink says.
After Glasgow joined the faculty at the School of Medicine six years ago, he had the opportunity to bring a peritoneal disease program to the institution, and from there the program has experienced great success.
“I see patients from Missouri, Arkansas, Illinois and sometimes Kentucky, really between here, Chicago and Nashville. There’s no other surgeons doing this,” Glasgow states. “No other hospitals are doing this in the Midwest.”
Having a program that’s already been established with clear pathways for patients means earlier recoveries and shorter hospital stays. These outcomes only exist at a place where these procedures are being performed often, Helmink explains.
“There’s only a certain number of programs within the United States, and he has built one here and it’s thriving really,” says Helmink. “So it’s just a matter of me, joining that program and then growing it from there, both from a clinical standpoint and then also from a hopefully scientific standpoint as well.”
For the complicated patient, coming to an academic institution like Washington University assures that they will receive a collaborative team approach to treatment, with experts in each field. These patients are oftentimes looking at multiple different places or for multiple opinions about their disease. Having the resources of a major medical center, they can receive comprehensive care at a singular institution.
Because this type of cancer is unique, the role of an interprofessional, experienced team is essential – something patients can find at Washington University. “I think the benefit of a place like Washington University is it’s a one-stop shop,” Helmink states. “Patients can get a medical oncologist opinion here. Then they can get a surgical opinion as well. We have all the resources to drive their care completely.”
With the addition of Helmink, Glasgow looks to the future of the program and sees it them performing more procedures each year.
“The growth of these procedures is not exponential, but certainly linear,” says Glasgow. “And with the new surgeon starting and the and new opportunities, we certainly have an opportunity to make it more exponential.”