David R. Gandara, MD
Each morning, David R. Gandara, MD, wakes up energized to spend another day as an oncologist in lung cancer practice and research, a field in which advances have been more rapid than anything previously seen in oncology.
As the director of the Thoracic Oncology Program at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) Comprehensive Cancer Center in Sacramento, he knows all too well about how quickly life can change when someone is presented with a diagnosis of lung cancer. Lung cancer kills more than 155,000 people each year in the United States. But with dedicated experts, such as Gandara, lung cancer treatment is improving as new treatment options are developed.
Growing up in Tyler, Texas—a town 100 miles east of Dallas—Gandara realized early on that his dual calling was in medicine and in writing. His current academic position at UC Davis gives him the opportunity to use his communication skills to the fullest. “I thought medicine would be a good way to be able to do that. I always envisioned myself being in academic medicine, where teaching is an integral part of what I do.”
The Road to Oncology
Gandara earned his undergraduate degree from The University of Texas at Austin and went on to attend medical school at The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, where he graduated with honors. At night, he worked as an emergency crossmatching technician for blood transfusions.
After medical school, Gandara headed west for his residency, which he completed at Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma, Washington. This was where he latched onto the field of oncology and began his training in hematologyoncology in San Francisco at Letterman Army Medical Center.
“Every rotation in medical school that I went through, I enjoyed, and I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to be an orthopedic surgeon or I’m going to be a psychiatrist,’” he recalled. But in his residency he had the opportunity to work with oncologists. “I felt, ‘Here’s a big need and an area that is likely to really expand and take off within my career time,’ which it has. I think it was a very good choice for me.”
Gandara has spent most of his career at UC Davis, where he served as associate director of clinical research for 20 years. During his career, he has also chaired the Southwest Oncology Group (SWOG) Lung Cancer Committee, which he acknowledges gave him many opportunities to work with other leaders in the field, as well as people at the National Cancer Institute (NCI).
In his development as an oncologist he made an effort to associate with experts who could provide mentorship through their deep insight. “I have been fortunate enough to be surrounded by very bright, collaborative people who have worked with me and are responsible for many of my achievements,” he said.
The biggest change in Gandara’s career came after his appointment as chair of the SWOG Lung Cancer Committee. “It allowed me to express myself,” he said. “I was relatively junior when that happened, and it allowed me to, over a period of 15 years, grow my own career and mentor a lot of other people and be associated with many important projects in lung cancer.” Gandara is multiskilled and finds himself wearing many hats. He spends his time teaching, conducting clinical research, designing clinical trials, doing administrative work, and seeing patients. “I take care of all the components of an academic career,” Gandara said.
His research is focused on the development of new anticancer agents, preclinical modeling, and clinical research, aided by Gandara’s leadership of multidisciplinary teams. His recent work includes phase I molecular and clinical pharmacology trials, early therapeutics trials with phase II emphasis, and discovery and identification of blood biomarkers for early detection of lung cancer. In addition, Gandara has been instrumental in teaching others about multimodality therapy, such as how to integrate radiation with chemotherapy and surgery.