Taking the Lead on the Future of Cancer: Q+A with Dr. Anil Rustgi

(Photo Credit: Columbia University/Barbara Alper)

When Anil K. Rustgi, MD, officially begins his post April 1, 2019, as the new director of the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC), it will be a coming home of sorts. While not a native New Yorker, Dr. Rustgi has for several years made frequent trips here -  to and from Boston during his GI fellowship and early faculty, and then later, between Philadelphia and New York to work on research projects with close collaborators at Columbia University and to visit family.

“I’ve had longstanding collaborations with colleagues at Columbia, including joint grants and publications, and so over time, I have been making the trip here at least once or twice a year,” he says. “And, for my wife, who is from New York City, this move is a ‘coming home’ after a long delay.” Dr. Rustgi and wife, Poonam Sehgal, MD, met during his gastroenterology fellowship at Massachusetts General Hospital in the early 1990s.

Dr. Rustgi, a leading cancer researcher and physician, is coming to Columbia and NewYork-Presbyterian after a more than 20-year career on faculty at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, where he has served as T. Grier Miller Professor of Medicine and Genetics, American Cancer Society Professor, director of an NIDDK P30 Center, director of a Penn-CHOP Center, director of NIH T32 training grants, and chief of Gastroenterology. He joins the HICCC at an exciting time of growth, innovation and expansion. The Center, which brings together leading, world-renowned experts, scientists and physicians from every corner of the cancer landscape, is in the planning phase of a brand new facility on the NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center campus in upper Manhattan.

“The commitment to excellence in research, education and clinical care is part of the very fabric of the cancer center—and that has been longstanding,” says Dr. Rustgi. “I have been impressed with the depth and breadth of basic science research, the growth of translational research, inclusive of clinical trials, and the growth in clinical care, both on campus as well as with our partner hospitals.”

Dr. Rustgi credits his hardworking immigrant parents for many of his career successes; they instilled in him the importance of an education. His father, Dr. Moti L. Rustgi, was a longtime professor of physics at the University of Buffalo and dedicated educator and mentor, who also emphasized community, giving back both professionally and personally. These life lessons have laid the foundation for how Dr. Anil Rustgi approaches his own work and how he interacts with patients and mentors students, residents, fellows and faculty.

“These ideals were imprinted in me very early on,” he says. “They have really framed my thinking about research, education, mentorship, clinical care and community relations.”

This spring, Dr. Rustgi will jump off the Amtrak treadmill to take up residence in New York City for the first time (while remaining a Boston sports fan!), and formally take up the HICCC directorship. As the center’s new leader, he will guide the HICCC as it continues towards realizing the vision that discoveries here will end cancer everywhere.

Q: What are you most excited to tackle as the new HICCC director?
A: There will be multiple interrelated priorities that we will pursue in parallel fashion. One area is enhancing basic research and intertwining with translational research; the second area is focusing on investigator-initiated clinical trials; the third area is to emphasize the efforts in precision oncology; and the fourth area is in population science (local and regional catchment areas and global health). We want to also focus on multidisciplinary clinical care for our patients, not only in this part of Manhattan but also in the larger region with our partner hospitals. Finally, I am excited about our future clinical cancer center building.

Q: You have been on faculty at Penn for two decades. Was it difficult to leave?  
A:  I have wonderful colleagues and friends at Penn, and those relationships will continue.  Columbia University too has an amazing history and tradition. This, coupled with its vision of the future, not only in the context of the cancer center but also in other disciplines, have attracted me to Columbia and NewYork-Presbyterian. I also hope to facilitate new collaborations between the two institutions, so this move for me is less about leaving Penn and more about forging new opportunities.

Q: What are some of the critical research areas in cancer today?
A: Some key areas include the following: (1) Basic mechanisms of tumor initiation, tumor microenvironment and tumor metastasis; (2) Translational medicine for early detection, biomarkers of cancer progression and recurrence; (3) Immuno-oncology; (4) Overcoming therapeutic resistance as well as employing new strategies in combinatorial therapeutics; (5) Implementation of cancer care in local and regional communities as well as linking to prevention.

Q: What are you working on?
A:  Our research involves the molecular genetics of gastrointestinal tumors originating from the esophagus, pancreas and colon. We are interested in common and divergent properties amongst these cancers, which are very common in the United States and worldwide. With such knowledge, we seek to translate our preclinical models to new clinical trials. We develop and characterize mouse models and 3D culture models as platforms for our studies in the tumor microenvironment and tumor metastasis.

Q: At Columbia and NewYork-Presbyterian, will you continue to do your research and also see patients?
A: Absolutely, both. It is important to be engaged in both as a means to understand the fundamental aspects of Columbia University, HICCC and NYP.  Research and clinical care are part of my identity as a physician-scientist. I enjoy both pursuits, leading to exciting interactions with trainees, colleagues and patients.

Q: What or who has been your biggest influence or inspiration?
A: Family, especially my wife, has been profoundly influential in their constant and unwavering support. I have had a number of inspirational mentors and role models from medical school, internal medicine residency, GI fellowship and different faculty stages. I consider myself very fortunate to be on the shoulders of people much greater than me. My father, who came to the U.S. to do his PhD in physics, encouraged my brother and me to go into medicine. At that time, he felt that much in the future would be in medicine. He was right.

Dr. Rustgi is director of the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center and Associate Dean of Oncology at Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

-Melanie A. Farmer