February 25, 2012
5 min read

Debasish ‘Debu’ Tripathy, MD, discusses the value of mentors and thinking outside the box

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Debasish “Debu” Tripathy, MD, is a professor of medicine and co-leader of the women’s cancer program at the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Tripathy also is a member of the HemOnc Today Editorial Board. He will serve as program director of the HemOnc Today Breast Cancer Review & Perspective, which will be held March 23-24 at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront.

Much of his clinical research focuses on novel therapeutics in breast cancer, including growth factor receptor pathway targeting and biomarkers that predict sensitivity and resistance.

What inspired you to go into medicine?

I was exposed to medicine early on because my father was a clinician and laboratory investigator. As a child, I visited in the lab often and helped clean the equipment and dishware. When I was 15, I started working as an orderly at our regional hospital. Working in a hospital seemed like a natural fit. As I grew older, the dual nature of medicine — the science and human aspects — appealed to me. The elements of service and technology fit together. There were a few years during high school and college when I wasn’t sure of my ultimate profession, but I always leaned in that direction. In college, I completed my thesis under a professor developing membranes for an artificial kidney. This really opened my eyes to investigative medicine.

What is your greatest professional reward?

Understanding the science behind making valuable decisions for patients. It is rewarding to know that the work I’ve been involved in can be an aid in not only decision-making but more effective options.

Debasish “Debu” Tripathy, MD
Debasish “Debu” Tripathy

Specifically, I was attempting to use antisense DNA to turn off the newly discovered HER-2 gene while still training as a fellow. It set the tone for my interest in the area, and I realized that this kind of drug development was going to be a pattern for cancer treatment in the future. It motivated me to re-create this experience throughout my career, and the rewards of that experience are still paying off.

What has been your biggest professional challenge?

Being able to do things on a large enough scale to interpret them. To make the most important associations, one has to perform studies with a large number of patients. Taking a seed of an idea in a pilot study and validating it in broader context is never easy. Collaborating with tens, dozens or hundreds of doctors on these big projects is a joy. It builds camaraderie and professional competition that benefits almost everyone involved, but it can be difficult working with so many people. It is fun, but challenging.

Whom do you consider to be your mentors?

Helene Smith, PhD, director of the Geraldine Brush Cancer Research Institute at California Pacific Medical Center, was a well-known cytogeneticist who encouraged me to think critically, yet out of the box, and to explore Tibetan medicine. That opened my interest in evidence-based integrative medicine. Other mentors included Chris Benz, MD, professor of Medicine at UCSF, whose lab I joined as a fellow, and Craig Henderson, MD, chief of hematology/oncology at UCSF, whose clinical mentorship brought me into the field of clinical investigation.

What is the best advice you ever received?

Dr. Smith encouraged me to be adventurous and to take risks. One area I had a chance to explore early on was complementary and alternative medicine. She was interested in Tibetan medicine, which was really in left field at the time. I ended up writing a grant that, surprisingly, was funded and began a whole program. This approach has benefited me as a clinician in the long run and hopefully will benefit patients as we understand more, but I never would have thought to explore it if someone hadn’t urged me to think differently.

What do you think will be the biggest breakthrough in your field in the next 10 years?

I think of this as being similar to finding the way to destroy the Death Star in the Star Wars movies. We are currently looking for critical vulnerabilities in cancer cells. However, once we target these vulnerabilities, the cells find ways to bypass treatment. We need to try to find multiple vulnerabilities and treat them together in an individualized fashion.

What advice would you offer to someone who is entering the field of cancer treatment or research?

I would suggest finding a mentor who will give you opportunities; someone who has the time and works on the types of projects that will allow you to learn and grow.

I also would suggest finding an area of focus that is uniquely yours. Of course, we don’t want to put our eggs in one basket, but the flip side of that is that you don’t want to spread yourself too thin. You have to delve deep in cancer research. You have to become a leader in one area that only you know.

For clinicians, I would suggest to learn as much about your patient as possible. Put yourself in their shoes whenever you can. See the world as they see it, and try to understand this disease as they might.

What do you do in your free time?

I play piano and keyboard, and a little guitar. Music is a big part of my life. I enjoy folk and rock music, particularly Bob Dylan, Neil Young and the Grateful Dead.

I also enjoy cooking. My cooking tends to have no boundaries. I enjoy trying new recipes; everything from Southwest barbecue to Asian cuisines, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my roots in Louisiana. I never get tired of cooking — and eating — Cajun food.

What is your favorite travel destination?

The most beautiful place I have seen is Istanbul, Turkey. It is a fascinating mixture of ancient and modern cultures, from the Byzantine and Roman empires to the modern energy of the Middle East. You can really feel that it straddles Europe and Asia. There is so much history there. The food is great, the people are friendly, the Grand Bazaar offers the best shopping, and the mosques and architecture are breathtaking.

Debasish  “Debu”  Tripathy, MD, shown during a trip to Egypt
Debasish “Debu” Tripathy, MD, shown during a trip to Egypt, enjoys cooking and playing piano. His favorite travel destination is Istanbul, Turkey.

Image courtesy of D. Tripathy, MD

What can participants expect from the HemOnc Today Breast Cancer Review & Perspective?

The meeting is emblematic of the bridging of new scientific developments and their applications in clinical practice for the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer. The last year has brought remarkable new findings in gene analysis and new therapeutics combined with hormonal therapy and HER-2–targeted drugs that will change standards of care. From the revolution in genomic, epigenetic and proteomic technology to personalized decision-making and targeted drugs that yield incremental improvement in outcome, today’s cancer specialists must think like scientists, clinicians, statisticians and psychologists — all at the same time.

Our faculty represents a spectrum of researchers and clinicians from academic and community practice backgrounds. The topics of genetics, screening and prevention, and the treatment of both early-stage and advanced disease each incorporate science and best clinical evidence to outline new paradigms and ongoing controversies. Interactive panel discussions and audience participation will also put into perspective several key advances over the last year.

– by Rob Volansky