My work has defined the standard of care for a variety of tumors, including liver cancer, bile duct cancer (cholangiocarcinoma), and colon cancer that has metastasized to the liver. Many refer to the widely used staging system I designed for metastatic colon cancer as the “FONG score.”
Our surgical team has also shown that patients treated by surgeons with more experience not only have fewer complications and recover more quickly, but that they also have a greater chance of long-term survival and cure. This finding is particularly striking for liver cancer surgery, for example, and for the Whipple procedure for pancreatic cancer.
I have always been interested in identifying new technologies and tools for more effectively treating disease. Undergoing an operation for the kinds of tumors that I treat is a very difficult ordeal for my patients, so back in the 1990s I was involved in a big push to use less invasive — but equally curative —methods in surgery that also quicken recovery and enable subsequent therapies to be started sooner.
I was among the first surgeons in the United State to remove a liver tumor via minimally invasive surgery (laparoscopy or robotic surgery), and I continue to use this approach whenever possible.
I was also instrumental at developing another minimally invasive approach known as image-guided therapy, which requires no incision at all. These techniques — cryotherapy, radiofrequency ablation, microwave ablation, and nanoknife surgery — use heat, cold, and other means delivered through lasers and needles to destroy tumors, and are now considered essential treatments of liver cancers. These minimally invasive procedures effectively treat cancer while minimizing trauma to the patient for smoother recovery.
In conjunction with my time in the clinic and operating room, I run two laboratories in which we pursue ways to improve patients’ survival and quality of life. My gene therapy lab is testing how genetically engineered viruses infect and kill cancers while sparing normal tissue. My cancer imaging lab is using wavelengths of light to visualize cancer before and during surgery, so that surgical procedures have a greater chance of helping and curing patients with cancer.
Among my many interests on a national level, I was honored to join, in 2009, the National Institutes of Health’s recombinant DNA advisory committee, the regulatory group overseeing all gene therapies for diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and hemophilia. I currently serve as chairman.
Even though I always knew I would go to medical school and become a doctor, I have many interests outside of medicine. In college I majored in poetry and still do spend some of my leisure hours reading and composing.
Outside of work, I am a devoted husband and father of three daughters, two of whom I coached in the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. It’s one of my greatest achievements in the last decade. I didn’t know I could be prouder until recently seeing my daughters start medical school — also planning on dedicating their lives to the care of others.