Thoracic Oncology Spotlight: Dr. David Sugarbaker

Illustration of mesothelioma research

When lung cancer strikes, cigarette smoking is often blamed for its development. However, notes the American Cancer Society, of the 170,000 cases or so of lung cancer diagnosed each year in the U.S., some 10 percent of those cases are among those who never smoked a single cigarette. In those individuals, other causes of the disease – like exposure to secondhand smoke, radon, or asbestos – might be part of the picture. Nevertheless, the disease remains the number one cause of cancer fatalities in the United States.

While the causes of lung cancer remain a concern, the real cause for concern is not why the cancer appeared, but what can be done to fight it, stress medical professionals like Dr. David Sugarbaker, Chief of the Division of Thoracic Surgery at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital. A 1979 graduate of Cornell University School of Medicine, Sugarbaker understands that one of the biggest obstacles to treating lung cancer successfully is the fact that it’s often not detected until it’s quite advanced, when treatment options are limited.

“The majority of patients present with inoperable stage IV disease,” say Sugarbaker, who is also on the staff of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute “As a consequence, only about 20 percent of patients present early enough to be suitable surgical candidates.”

Hence, Dr. Sugarbaker’s laboratory has worked towards identifying protein markers in tumors, such as those in non-small cell lung cancer and mesothelioma, in hopes of prompting earlier diagnoses of the diseases.

However, the major focus of his work over the last several years has been geared towards developing new and innovative surgical techniques for the treatment of those with mesothelioma and other lung cancers in hopes that more patients can be candidates for surgery. In particular, Sugarbaker has been lauded for his development of a successful surgical technique for mesothelioma surgery.

In an attempt to strengthen the fight against various types of lung cancer, Sugarbaker – who has served as co-leader of the Brigham Biomedical Research Institute’s Cancer Research Center – has also promoted the multi-modal approach to treatment, which includes the use of surgery along with chemotherapy and/or radiation.

Though Dr. Sugarbaker is considered one of the foremost experts in the field of thoracic surgery and the treatment of thoracic cancers, he admits that it takes the proverbial village to address the demon that is lung cancer.

“The strength of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the Brigham Biomedical Research Institute, and the Cancer Research Center is the outstanding faculty and clinical staff, the large patient population, and the dedicated research efforts of this large body of investigators, all of which are essential ingredients for great discovery and medical innovation,” he stresses.

Sugarbaker hopes that, in the future, there will be more and better ways to detect lung cancer at an earlier stage and that advancements in treatment will allow him to tailor his treatment plans to individual patients in order to better address their particular tumor.


  • Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston MA

This is the final installment in a series of thoracic oncology physician spotlights we’ll be featuring throughout the month of November in observance of Lung Cancer Awareness Month.