Vamsidhar Velcheti, MD, is director of the Thoracic Medical Oncology Program at NYU Langone’s Lung Cancer Center, where he specializes in treating people who have thoracic malignancies, such as lung cancer and mesothelioma.
Dr. Velcheti joined NYU Langone’s Perlmutter Cancer Center last year from Cleveland Clinic and has been focused on developing advanced treatments for lung cancer. Below, he talks about why he loves working at NYU Langone, new developments in the field, and more.
What makes you excited to come to work every day?
I am humbled by the opportunity to help patients and families navigate through their diagnosis and treatment of lung cancer.
Almost five years ago, I had a patient who was a high school teacher in Ohio. She had stage IV lung cancer and met me for a second opinion. She was initially offered standard treatment with chemotherapy and was told she had a few months to live.
We offered her a clinical trial with a novel immunotherapy treatment—a type of treatment that empowers your immune system to fight cancer. Back then, it was not considered a standard treatment for lung cancer, and she had a remarkable response with very few side effects. A few years ago, she participated in the Senior Olympics and won a gold medal in volleyball. As a physician and clinical investigator, I find such stories incredibly gratifying.
There have been significant advances in lung cancer treatments in the past few years, especially with treatments such as immunotherapy. Lung cancer is not the same disease it was five years ago, and people’s expectations about treatment and outcomes are very different.
I believe 10 years from now we may be talking about lung cancer as a chronic disease. I am constantly reminded about how much more we need to do to improve outcomes for lung cancer. This fuels my day as a cancer researcher and enables me to deliver a message of hope for my patients.
Immunotherapy is a big topic in cancer treatment right now. Can you explain it for us, and talk about its potential to help patients?
In the last decade, we have gained a deeper understanding about the workings of cancer at a molecular level and the interactions between the body’s immune system and the cancer. This has given rise to a new wave of treatments that unleash the power of the immune system and reprogram the body’s defenses to allow them to fight the cancer and provide an effective and long-term response. When you program the body’s immune system to fight the cancer, you have a better chance of making the response last for years, as it did for the patient I described earlier.
What are some of the unique advantages that NYU Langone’s Lung Cancer Center offers our patients?
I believe that we have some of the best lung cancer doctors here at NYU Langone who are also at the forefront of lung cancer research. My goal is to bring promising and novel scientific discoveries from the laboratory to our patients and offer treatments beyond the existing standard. Innovative clinical trials offer promising treatment options, and having access to these trials is a huge plus for our patients.
We have specialists such as medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, thoracic surgeons, and pulmonologists who exclusively treat people who have lung cancer and understand their unique needs. Our outstanding team includes thoracic surgeons with expertise in minimally invasive robotic surgery, pulmonologists who specialize in treating every type of pulmonary disease, and radiologists and pathologists who specialize in the diagnosis of thoracic tumors.
Our team of psychologists and social workers also provides personalized care to our patients that goes beyond medical care. It takes a village, and I believe that we provide the best care for people who have lung cancer in the New York City area.
What are some initiatives on the horizon here?
In addition to providing better access to innovative treatments for lung cancer, we are improving lung cancer screening and prevention. Recently, along with collaborators at the Center for Computational Imaging and Personalized Diagnostics at Case Western Reserve University, our team developed novel imaging tools that can improve the diagnostic accuracy of CT scans for lung cancer screening.
Along with other centers, we are initiating efforts to incorporate these imaging applications, which use artificial intelligence and deep learning algorithms, to improve diagnostic accuracy for lung cancer. We are also developing and optimizing some of these imaging-based tools to predict response and monitor patients receiving immunotherapy treatment. This is an exciting new field called radiomics that has the potential to revolutionize how we use the information obtained from routine clinical scans to improve treatment for lung cancer.
In addition, we are collaborating with MD Anderson Cancer Center to offer innovative clinical trials using immunotherapy to prevent lung cancer in patients who are at high risk for this disease. These bold and forward-thinking clinical trials can prevent precancerous lesions from developing into cancer.
It sounds like there is a lot of reason for optimism.
The more we learn about lung cancer, the more we start to understand its complex biology and how different types of cancer respond to different treatments. The big challenge is translating the rapid innovations in the field into treatments that can prolong lives and cure more people who have lung cancer.
Clinical trials offer patients the best chance for access to these advanced treatments and help improve outcomes for lung cancer globally. We are seeing patients live longer, and even patients with stage IV cancer are having long-term responses. There is a lot of hope, many exciting developments, and new treatments, especially immunotherapy, which have the potential to put cancer into long-term remission.
I hope to be in a place where we can cure many of these types of cancer soon.