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VOL. 130 | NO. 56 | Monday, March 23, 2015

St. Jude Adds Chair of Radiation Oncology

By Andy Meek

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St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital has a new chair for its Department of Radiation Oncology, a key position at a time when the hospital has increasingly taken steps to bolster its radiation therapy programs.

MERCHANT

St. Jude veteran Dr. Thomas Merchant has been tapped for the position, in which he’ll oversee the hospital’s programs that rely on radiation therapy to treat childhood cancer. In addition, he holds the Baddia J. Rashid Endowed Chair in Radiation Oncology.

The work involves an area in which Merchant has already been involved since joining the hospital in 1996, going on to help pioneer new radiotherapy treatments now regarded as standards in the field. The hospital says Merchant’s work with conformal radiation therapy for central nervous system tumors, for example, is the basis for guidelines used in most of the national cooperative group pediatric brain tumor trials. He’s also helped spearhead development of treatment guidelines for certain radiation therapy and proton therapy in pediatric brain and solid tumors.

Before coming to St. Jude, he was an attending physician in the Department of Radiation Oncology at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

The department Merchant has been tapped to chair at St. Jude was previously a division of St. Jude Radiological Sciences. Because the hospital’s operations have grown on numerous fronts, including size and complexity, St. Jude eventually opted to split its radiological sciences unit into two departments, now Radiation Oncology and Diagnostic Imaging.

The hospital’s diagnostic imaging faculty and staff provide patients with diagnostic and therapeutic imaging-based assessments and therapy. St. Jude clinical director and executive vice president Dr. Larry Kun is heading up Diagnostic Imaging until a chair is appointed.

In a statement about Merchant’s appointment, St. Jude president and CEO Dr. James Downing said Merchant “will be instrumental in helping St. Jude define the next generation of treatments that hold the best hope for improved outcomes and better long-term quality of life for children with brain and solid tumors.”

To accelerate that prospect, St. Jude has been working hard to bolster its radiotherapy programs, since radiation therapy – which can be used alone or as part of a mix of approaches including surgery and chemotherapy – is acknowledged as a key step in managing and treating pediatric tumors.

When hospital and other officials cut the ribbon last month on St. Jude’s $198 million Kay Research and Care Center, they noted that the center will house, among other things, the St. Jude Red Frog Events Proton Therapy Center, the first proton therapy center in the world designed especially for treatment of children.

Merchant played a key role in creating the center, the hospital says, which will open in the fall and is focused on proton therapy, regarded as the most advanced and highly precise form of radiation treatment available today. Doctors can use it to administer high-dose radiation to targeted areas while sparing surrounding healthy tissue from radiation exposure.

A $25 million commitment to the hospital from Red Frog Events made the new proton therapy center possible. Its presence within the Kay Research and Care Center makes it part of a new facility that the hospital said at last month’s event will help it usher in a new era of research, education, collaboration, care and treatment for St. Jude and its patients.

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