The next generation

Pavani Chalasani, MD, MPH; Robert Livingston, MD
Pavani Chalasani, MD, MPH; Robert Livingston, MD

Pavani Chalasani, MD, MPH, has high hopes for the future of cancer treatment. At the University of Arizona Cancer Center, her mentors are helping her turn those hopes into reality.

“The faculty is what makes this place so special,” Dr. Chalasani said. “Things are constantly moving forward here, and peopl eare always dreaming big. It’s a very inspiring environment.”

As a young med student at Gandhi Medical College in Hyderabad, India, Dr. Chalasani wasn’t quite sure where her path would lead. She was certain, though, that she wanted to help develop cutting- edge research and treatment procedures.

After Dr. Chalasani graduated from the University of Massachusetts with a master’s in public health in 2004, she enrolled at the University of Arizona in 2006 to begin her residency in internal medicine. She soon became fascinated with the field of hematology/oncology and was accepted into the UA’s hematology/oncology fellowship program, where she spent the last three years sharpening her focus on both clinical care and research methods.

Toward the end of her second year in the fellowship program, Dr. Chalasani narrowed in on breast cancer and started to take a closer look at defective DNA repair capacity of tumors in patients with breast cancer. She found that tumors that have a defective DNA repair capacity respond differently to chemotherapy drugs. However, there isn’t a standardized way to look at the defective DNA strands in these patients, so she set her mind on the best way to analyze and repair the defective DNA.

She took advantage of the resources that the University of Arizona can provide, assembling a team of genomic and therapeutic researchers and developing a solid protocol and hypothesis that will potentially lead to a clinical trial.

During the process, however, Dr. Chalasani learned exactly what it takes to transition from an idea into a clinically applicable decision tool. She spoke of the dozens of essential practical steps that many physicians simply don’t think of when they’re coming up with theories. How many patients will it take to come up with statistically viable data? How much funding will the trial require, and where will that funding come from? How much funding gets set aside for data managers, shipping fees or simple office supplies?

This is where mentorship plays a vital role. A handful of the UA Cancer Center’s top faculty members, including breast cancer multidisciplinary team leaders Robert Livingston, MD, and Alison Stopeck, MD, took an interest in Dr. Chalasani’s development and provided her with support every step of the way.

“Dr. Stopeck is such an amazing resource when it comes to writing protocols and grant proposals. She is one of the best editors I have met. She knows how to phrase things correctly, be it in a paper or in a proposal,” Dr. Chalasani said. “She is so generous with her time and her expertise.”

As for Dr. Livingston, Dr. Chalasani’s primary clinical mentor, this defective DNA repair project has been a career-long goal of his. Watching it take shape through the mentorship process has been particularly rewarding — for both of them.

“When everyone around you is thinking and innovating, it keeps you on your toes and it makes your work that much better,” she said. “The environment at the University of Arizona Cancer Center truly allows cutting-edge research to happen.”

As she moves from fellow to full-fledged faculty member, Dr. Chalasani will look to maintain a balance between her research projects and her first love — clinical care.

“I like research, but clinical care is what I love the most,” Dr. Chalasani said. “You really get to know someone and help see that person through the process. Those deep, personal connections you make are the most rewarding. The idea of targeted, personalized therapy wasn’t part of a patient’s treatment as recently as 10 years ago. Now, it’s within our grasp. It is through research where we are constantly figuring out new and better treatments for our patients.”

- Nick Prevenas, Oct. 1, 2012