Keeping Patients in Mind: Noted Breast Cancer Researcher Pursues Broad Notion of Personalized Medicine

Beth Fand Incollingo @fandincollingo
Published: Wednesday, Dec 28, 2011
Debu Tripathy, MD

Debu Tripathy, MD

When a friend died of leukemia during his childhood, Debu Tripathy was shocked. It was not the sort of thing he'd believed could happen to someone so young. But as Tripathy watched the way the girl's mother reacted to the loss, his disbelief turned to admiration.

"Her mother wrote a book and gave speeches advocating for some of the personal issues that people go through, how a family is drawn together in times of crisis," recalled Tripathy. "I was very moved by how she responded to her daughter's illness and death by doing something so positive."

More than 3 decades later, Tripathy, a world-renowned oncologist and translational researcher who fills several roles at the University of Southern California (USC), Los Angeles, remains deeply interested in the patient experience.

One of a small group of scientists who had a hand in developing Herceptin (trastuzumab) for the treatment of breast cancer, Tripathy's current work is focused on understanding why some patients are resistant to the drug, and how to create more effective therapies for them.

In part, he is accomplishing that by continuing his role as a lead investigator on the multi-institution I SPY trial. Through repeated biopsies of tumors from patients in the neoadjuvant setting, the trial's first phase correlated specific genetic profiles with drug resistance, helping to identify genes that could make good targets for future drugs. In phase II, women with breast cancer will receive the investigational drugs thought to best match the biology of their tumors.

True to what he learned from his friend's mother, Tripathy, 51, is just as committed to looking beyond laboratory and clinical research toward the holistic treatment of patients.

Early on, I became interested in the human side of cancer." ”
–Debu Tripathy, MD
"Early on, I became interested in the human side of cancer - how people make decisions, and the huge interest patients have in alternative and complementary medicine," Tripathy said. "We know, as physicians, that the amount of evidence [supporting such treatments] is very scant, yet people are very drawn and interested in it. I wanted to understand why that was and whether or not one could do meaningful research in that area."

About 10 years ago, that curiosity prompted Tripathy to test a group of Tibetan herbs for usefulness in cancer treatment, although the trial, starved for funding, did not move on to the next phase. A separate, promising trial involving the Chinese herb Ban Zhi Lian is expected to move forward.

Delving into the study of herbal medicines, especially before many targeted therapies had been developed, was an eye-opening experience that continues to inform Tripathy's work.

Debu Tripathy, MD

Debu Tripathy, MD,
At a Glance

  • Is married and has 3 children: 2 daughters, ages 23 and 18, and a 16-year-old son. Although they all have aptitude in science and math, they're most interested in the liberal arts.
  • Grew up playing classical piano and now enjoys playing keyboards and guitar; in high school and college, performed in folk and rock bands.
  • Is a devotee of Asian fusion cuisine and enjoys cooking and inventing new dishes.
  • Enjoyed the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond, about the evolution of civilization.
  • Likes complicated thriller movies, citing The Sting as his favorite.
  • Learned Spanish while living in Cali, Colombia, from ages 3 to 12. "I'm still fluent, and it's very helpful, because a lot of my patients are Spanish-speaking," he said. "It's nice to have the ability to communicate."
  • Is co-director of the 29th Annual Miami Breast Cancer Conference, offered through Physicians' Education Resource, which is owned by an affiliate of Intellisphere.
  • Is a co-author of the book Breast Cancer: Beyond Convention: The World's Foremost Authorities on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Offer Advice on Healing.
  • Has served as president of the American Society of Breast Diseases and the Society for Integrative Oncology, and as advisor to "The Mother's Living Stories Project."
  • Has received many awards, including the Hero's Award, given by the Breast Cancer Fund, and the Greater Dallas Asian American Chamber of Commerce Award in Medicine Research.
  • Believes that to push cancer research forward, scientists should be allowed access to the electronic medical records of all patients, with provisions made to protect their privacy.
"Chinese and Tibetan treatments are personalized, but the typical scientific dogma has always been that you use the same treatment on everybody," he said. "It's interesting now because we see the whole field moving toward personalized medicine. Back then, it was different to think of doing a trial that way. I was trying to reconcile the notion of personalized medicine with doing well-done scientific trials, and that's still a dilemma we all face - how to take this evolving area and do individualized trials."

View Conference Coverage
Online CME Activities
TitleExpiration DateCME Credits
Clinical Interchange™: Translating Research to Inform Changing Paradigms: Assessment of Emerging Immuno-Oncology Strategies and Combinations across Lung, Head and Neck, and Bladder CancersOct 31, 20182.0
Community Practice Connections: Oncology Best Practice™ Targeting Cell Cycle Progression: The Latest Advances on CDK4/6 Inhibition in Metastatic Breast CancerOct 31, 20181.0
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