Saving young lives from sarcoma


Associate Professor David Thomas

20 August 2009

The founder of Australia’s first virtual sarcoma tissue bank tells Dr Andi Horvath what inspires him to do medical research.

As well as being a researcher, Associate Professor David Thomas of Melbourne’s Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre is a doctor looking after young people with the rare bone cancer, osteosarcoma. His research team’s molecular profiling of tumours has led to promising treatment pathways for the disease.

Here he reveals that seeing young people with cancer is a strong motivator to finding better ways of treating the disease.

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Transcript of podcast

Voice-over: Welcome to this National Health and Medical Research Council podcast. Every year NHMRC celebrates ten of Australia’s best health and medical research projects. In this interview series we explore the job, the person and the event that led to a career in medical research.

Introduction: I’m Dr Andi Horvath. Come with me and meet these Chief Investigators of Medical Research Projects. Next up is Associate Professor David Thomas of Melbourne’s Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre. He’s just here in the neighborhood so let’s go talk to him.

Interviewer: David how do you describe to students what you do?

Assoc Prof Thomas: I guess I would say that I’m a doctor and I look after young people with a rare type of cancer called sarcoma and I also try to do some research into the causes of sarcoma as well as treating patients.

Interviewer: What sort of things do you do day-to-day if we were to follow you around?

Assoc Prof Thomas: Well it would depend upon the day. On Wednesday mornings at 6.30 you’d find me pottering off to a clinica pathalogic (clinical pathology) meeting where we show the histology – that is the cellular pictures of patients who have been newly diagnosed – and we argue over the diagnosis and come up with a decision and then we look at the CTs and MRI scans that tell us exactly where the cancer is in the body. Then we plan our treatments and then after that I come across from that meeting to the Peter Mac and I prepare for our Multi Disciplinary Sarcoma Unit meeting where we discuss all the cases and a sort of complex extended team, a family as it were of people who treat patients with cancer and we decide what we’re going to do when we see those patients.

Interviewer: What’s the most interesting part of your job, what really gets you excited?

Assoc Prof Thomas: Oh I love it when an experiment that we’re thinking about opens out and you understand something differently for the first time or something pans out the way you expect it to, or even sometimes when it doesn’t turn out the way you expect it but is even more interesting for that.

Interviewer: Now you started off life as a medical doctor but you’ve turned to research, so how did you get interested in the field of medical research?

Assoc Prof Thomas: When I was at school I was a terrible, I hated chemistry and I swore that one thing I would never do would be to go into science so that seemed improbable, but I was interested in the human aspects – in fact I wanted to do humanities at university – but I transferred into medicine because it seemed a more obvious way to get exposure to human nature. So I got into, I did medicine and found the whole process relatively tedious and uninteresting until I came to being confronted by people who get, who are sick and it’s different then, and somebody rang up out of the blue and he said do you want to do a PhD and I said yes. Mainly I was thinking about you know stopping this endless cycle of being on call in emergency departments.

So I went and did a PhD and it was a very different world and I think most doctors find it very challenging when they go into science for the first time. But by the third year of my PhD I was essentially self-directed, I was doing my own research. My supervisor as is often the case with PhD’s as I understand better with time, you just end up taking over and running your own experiments and I loved it. Then I went back and finished off my advanced training which involved chemotherapy – in fact I was on bone marrow transplants – I think that’s where I came up with my view that current treatments in chemotherapies weren’t the answer in the future.

When I finished that and I’d got my specialist degree I thought I want to go back and do more science and I had the very good fortune to go to Harvard Medical School where there was a wonderful man called Phil Hinds. It’s too long a story to go into what Phil is famous for but Phil, I did a post doc with him in his lab, and that was the most wonderful time of my life. I was certainly singing every time I went into work virtually.

And so I decided I wanted to do science properly and came back to Australia in early 2000 and I set up my own lab and slowly worked out how to put together the various bits of the jigsaw. I don’t think of it as work actually I think of it as kind of, it’s a very privileged position to be in, and of course the motivation at the end of it is if you go down and see a patient who’s dying of cancer and you come up to the lab, it’s very motivating.

Interviewer: David, do you have work-life balance?

Assoc Prof Thomas: No. I don’t think that’s possible. But you know I have a sort of understanding family and three children who I try to sort of you know, I have the illusion that they’re fond of me, so I try to read a story to them most nights. I wouldn’t want anybody to come away from this thinking that it’s possible to do this work nine-to-five. I honestly believe it’s a vocation and it demands everything of you. Some people might say I need to ‘get a life’ for example but you know my life is the research and my patients.

Interviewer: Why do you do this research and will you do it again?

Assoc Prof Thomas: I think looking after people who have cancer teaches you how inadequate our medical knowledge is, how ineffective our treatments have traditionally been, which sounds somewhat bleak of course but that’s the reality that it’s a devastating disease that affects a lot of people. I’m a person who fundamentally has faith in science and I guess I would take the view that in addition to simply using the recipe book of treatments that have currently existed and which are so obviously inadequate, there’s a lot to be said for at least working in parallel with this to try and understand better ways to treat these diseases and that’s what research is. Research is about taking a problem, trying to pull it to bits in such a way that you can make it tractable, make it do what you want it to do.

Interviewer: That was David Thomas. He’s an Associate Professor and a Chief Investigator of one of the NHandMRC projects. Thanks David for your time and great advice.

Assoc Prof Thomas: Thanks.

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