Section of HPB and Gastrointestinal Surgery — Featured News

Basic research by medical oncologist Andrea Wang-Gillam, MD, PhD, surgeon William Hawkins, MD, and others is fostering development of new pancreas cancer therapies.

Basic research by medical oncologist Andrea Wang-Gillam, MD, PhD, surgeon William Hawkins, MD, and
others is fostering development of new pancreas cancer therapies.

Collaboration seeks new therapies

Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) is the most common form of pancreas cancer, accounting for more than 80 percent of cases. The cancer — with a five-year survival rate of only six percent — has proven highly resistant to treatment, making development of new therapeutic approaches a major priority.

The Section of Hepatobiliary-Pancreatic and Gastrointestinal Surgery has a long history of translational science in pancreas cancer. Building on work that began at the laboratory bench, the research is now moving into the clinical arena with a group of four collaborative projects attacking the cancer through immunologic therapy and drug development.

“Several of these projects are based on basic scientific discoveries at Washington University, and all will ultimately result in therapeutic trials,” says William Hawkins, MD, section chief and Neidorff Family and Robert C. Packman Professor. “This research is successfully and strategically moving laboratory discoveries from bench to bedside to address a very difficult disease.”

The projects draw on the expertise of surgeons, oncologists and basic scientists at Washington University and two other institutions. Goals include:

  • Develop and test personalized vaccines for PDAC patients based on their genetic factors
  • Evaluate a strategy to overcome the immune suppression caused by tumors
  • Screen combinations of drugs for inhibiting molecular pathways that foster tumor survival
  • Develop a delivery platform for small-molecule drugs that sends drugs directly to tumors and avoids adverse side effects

The researchers will use the preliminary data to support an application for a Specialized Programs of Research Excellence (SPORE) grant, a major collaborative translational research award sponsored by the National Cancer Institute.

The projects are supported by The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital’s Cancer Frontier Fund, established to accelerate the traditional pace of innovation in cancer treatment.

Hawkins named section chief


William Hawkins, MD, is the new section chief.

William Hawkins, MD, was named chief of the Section of Hepatobiliary-Pancreatic and Gastrointestinal Surgery, and the Neidorff Family and Robert C. Packman Professor in November 2014. He also was appointed director of the Hepatobiliary-Pancreatic Fellowship Program.

Hawkins joined the faculty in 2004 after completing a surgical oncology fellowship at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. His clinical practice includes cancers of the pancreas, liver and stomach, and benign and malignant bile duct diseases. His research focuses on novel therapies for pancreatic cancer, including drug development and immunology.

Hawkins received a Washington University Bear Cub grant to develop and potentially commercialize a drug that will serve as a platform for delivering chemotherapy to patients with pancreatic cancer. His lab is funded by the NIH.

Hawkins earned a medical degree at the State University of New York at Stony Brook School of Medicine and completed a surgical residency at Harvard Medical School.


  • Steven Strasberg, MD, was the senior author of a report by the Second International Consensus Conference on Laparoscopic Liver Resections that evaluated the current status of laparoscopic liver surgery. Published in the Annals of Surgery, it concluded that minor laparoscopic liver resection had become standard, but major liver resections were still in the exploration phase. Authors made recommendations on preoperative evaluation, bleeding controls, transection methods, anatomic approaches and equipment, and recognized the need for a formal education structure.
  • Lymph node status is one of the most important predictors of recurrence after gastrectomy for gastric cancer. Ryan Fields, MD, was senior author of a seven-institution study that found patients with lymph-node–negative gastric cancer, T stage 3 or higher, have a significantly shorter time to recurrence compared with those whose tumors were at a lower stage. The study recommended more aggressive postoperative therapy and surveillance regimens. The study was sponsored by the U.S. Gastric Cancer Collaborative and published in the Annals of Surgery.
  • Strasberg was senior author, and Bruce Hall, MD, PhD, MBA, a co-author of a study establishing a quantitative benchmark for complications after the Whipple procedure, the most common operation to remove pancreatic cancers. The study used data from the American College of Surgeons National Surgical Quality Improvement Program (ACS NSQIP®). The benchmark should prove useful in identifying areas needing quality improvement. The study was published in the Annals of Surgery.