Remembering Dr. David Sugarbaker

Quick Summary

Dr. David Sugarbaker has been nicknamed “Mr. Mesothelioma” and was known as one of the top surgeons in the world, internationally recognized for his work treating malignant pleural mesothelioma. Dr. Sugarbaker developed the first tri-modal treatment for mesothelioma, which combines surgical removal of a tumor with chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

Dr. David Sugarbaker, the pleural mesothelioma treatment pioneer, has died at the age of 65.

We fondly remember him through the brilliant work he did and the belief he had in hope for his patients. Dr. Sugarbaker exemplified the hope he promoted in the treatments he pioneered.

“As I say to patients, ‘when hope is part of the equation, anything is possible.’ I remain optimistic that we can, in the next decade, put together the right combination of patients and treatments to effect a cure, which is our holy grail,” said Dr. Sugarbaker.

Dr. Sugarbaker primarily treated mesothelioma patients with Stage 1, 2, or 3 cancers, as his treatment options are aggressive and tend to be most effective against early stage cancer. He had vast experience with the two most popular surgical treatments for mesothelioma, extrapleural pneumonectomy (EPP) and pleurectomy/decortication (P/D), as well as both traditional and heated chemotherapy options.

He also began the movement towards personalized treatment plans, discarding the “one size fits all” approach to cancer treatment by identifying tumor gene ratios that help experts better categorize subtypes of mesothelioma. His tri-modal treatment strategy begins with a general plan but is tweaked for every individual based on their specific circumstance.

Dr. Sugarbaker’s extensive knowledge of all current mesothelioma therapies and ability to effectively treat mesothelioma patients made him a highly sought-after surgeon.

Dr. Sugarbaker’s Career Highlights

Dr. Sugarbaker is well-known for many accomplishments and contributions to mesothelioma research including:

  • Pioneered the highly effective tri-modal approach for treating early-stage peritoneal mesothelioma
  • Completed early mesothelioma studies that identified markers that allows for earlier diagnosis
  • Helped identify sub-types of mesothelioma, which led to improved, individualized treatment plans
  • Developed the world-class cancer treatment program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital

Dr. Sugarbaker’s Background

Was Dr. Sugarbaker destined to become a leading expert in mesothelioma? It certainly seems that way.

Dr. David Sugarbaker is one of five Sugarbaker siblings who became doctors, including Dr. Paul Sugarbaker. All were drawn to surgery at a young age, following in the footsteps of their surgeon father.

“My father and two [older] brothers were excellent role models for me. Medicine had a very strong influence on my early life. I spent a lot of my early years in high school and college helping my father in his operating room, at the hospital, often driving with him to see patients outside of our hometown as well. Everybody in our family was very much involved in his surgical practice,” said Dr. Sugarbaker.

Dr. Sugarbaker went to Cornell University Medical School, then completed his residency at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Dr. Sugarbaker worked at Brigham and Women’s Hospital for 25 years and made an immense impact on the medical community during that time. He was recruited as Chief of Thoracic Surgery, a brand new division at the time. In no time, Dr. Sugarbaker turned the department into one of the top cancer programs in the world.

In addition to his own accomplishments, Dr. Sugarbaker mentored other doctors who have gone on to make notable contributions toward mesothelioma research and treatment options. These doctors include Dr. David Harpole Jr., Dr. David Jablons, and Dr. Abraham “Avi” Lebenthal.

“He is Mr. Mesothelioma. In this field, he is the gold standard. I don’t think you’ll get any argument on that,” said Dr. Lebenthal, reflecting on Dr. Sugarbaker’s medical contributions.

Medical Specializations

Dr. Sugarbaker was a certified surgical oncologist, who specialized in mesothelioma treatments. He pioneered the tri-modal treatment strategy which works in three steps. First, the tumor is removed through a surgical operation. A month later, the patient will begin chemotherapy. After two rounds of chemotherapy, external beam radiation therapy begins. While this is the standard “recipe” for a mesothelioma patient under the tri-modal approach, the phases and timing may be modified for each patient.

Dr. Sugarbaker also led the way for genetic therapy, categorizing the forms of mesothelioma and using knowledge of their subtypes to provide better, personalized treatment strategies.

“The strategies are changing and one of the major influences producing that change is the whole genomics, genetic characterization of tumors, as well as their metastatic lesions. Part of that was the concept of better genomics and genetic characterization of thoracic cancers can lead to a predictive model to tell us what types of treatment strategies will work best for the individual patient. We are setting out to define each tumor’s profile of mutations,“ said Dr. Sugarbaker.

Dr. Sugarbaker’s Career Accomplishments

Dr. Sugarbaker had an extraordinarily accomplished career treating mesothelioma and other thoracic cancers. He pioneered the tri-modal treatment for malignant pleural mesothelioma, investigated genomic mapping that has progressed personalized treatment plans, and helped set the global standards for mesothelioma treatment options.

Career Accomplishments Update

He also created one of the nation’s most recognized cancer teams while working at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and accomplished the same for Texas Medical Center. By creating elite, multidisciplinary medical teams, Dr. Sugarbaker furthered the world’s knowledge, understanding, and treatment of mesothelioma.

Awards & Honors

  • The Chadwick Medal – American Lung Association of the Northeast
  • The Pioneer Award – Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation
  • F. Griffith Pearson Teaching Award, Thoracic Surgery Residents – Brigham and Women’s Hospital
  • Outstanding Leadership – Cancer and Leukemia Group B
  • Leadership in Cancer Award – Lung Cancer Alliance
  • The Sopman Humanitarian Award for Commitment to Excellence in the Provision of Health Care – University of Toronto
  • Outstanding Teaching Award, Surgical House Staff – Brigham and Women’s Hospital
  • Arthur Tracey Cabot Fellow in Surgery – Brigham and Women’s Hospital
  • Research Fellowship – National Institute of Health

Lung Institute (2014-2018)

Dr. Sugarbaker finished his career at the Lung Institute of Texas and was part of the process of developing another world-leading cancer research and treatment program. He was Chief of General Thoracic Surgery, a professor, a director, and the Olga Keith Wiess Chair in Surgery—all at the Lung Institute’s Baylor College of Medicine.

“I think you could sum up all the primary goals in saying we want to establish a platform within the Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Medical Center that provides the best possible, most effective patient care,” said Dr. Sugarbaker.

As leader of the research and clinical programs, Dr. Sugarbaker created a large-scale, translational team that combines medical professionals from numerous specialties and backgrounds. The goal is to create better therapies and treatment strategies for all lung disorders, including mesothelioma.

Notable Publication by Dr. Sugarbaker

Dr. David Sugarbaker was also the author of “Adult Chest Surgery”, an award-winning book that serves as a hands-on guide for general thoracic surgery.

Originally published June 29, 2009, Adult Chest Surgery was updated to include a total of 141 chapters for its second edition, released December 22, 2014. The surgical education manual covers an extensive range of thoracic topics including patient care, esophageal conditions, upper airway diseases, lung cancer, and more.

Part 13 explains pleural malignancies (cancers) and diffusions (spreading), including malignant pleural mesothelioma. The chapters cover several methods of treatment: pleurectomy and decortication, extrapleural pneumonectomy, photodynamic therapy, and heated chemotherapy. Part 13 also discusses nonoperative treatments for mesothelioma and other pleural malignancies.

His publication is widely regarded as the most authoritative manual of thoracic surgery available today.

Dr. Sugarbaker’s Healing Philosophy

Dr. Sugarbaker’s goal was to provide the most effective treatment plans for each individual patient, and he made tremendous strides towards this ambition at the Lung Institute of Baylor. He always maintained that a translation team of medical professionals can work together to implement existing strategies and develop new therapies to help better treat and eventually cure mesothelioma.

“People talk about getting a cure, and we will all work toward that goal,” said Dr. Sugarbaker. “However, today it is about getting patients to survive longer with the treatments we have available now. We hope to develop the communication systems between team members in such a way that information flow is effortless.”

Thank you, Dr. Sugarbaker, for what you gave to the mesothelioma community. May we continue to seek the cure you believed was within reach.

View Author and Sources

  1. TMC News. “David J Sugarbaker, M.D.” Retrieved from Accessed on November 11th, 2017.
  2. Dr. David Sugarbaker. “Honors & Rewards.” Retrieved from Accessed on November 11th, 2017.

Last modified: October 24, 2018