Q&A with Clinician-Investigator Program trainee Ghassan Allo

Tuesday, February 12, 2013
Ghassan Allo
Ghassan Allo, LMP PGY 4 Anatomical Pathology Resident and Clinician-Investigator Program trainee

Why did you choose the Clinician-Investigator Program? I’ve always been a curious person craving to learn about everything. During my residency training, I was inspired to ask and seek answers to a variety of challenging questions. I planned to dedicate time and energy to explore that desire and applied to the Clinician-Investigator Program after obtaining the fundamentals of diagnostic pathology. Besides having the opportunity to study and to perform research at a world-class institution, this program offered me an invaluable opportunity to network with colleagues and trainees from a wide range of specialties and backgrounds who shared the same objectives and aims in their career path. It also offered a variety of seminars and lectures on topics that are very relevant to clinician-investigators but are barely offered in other settings.

What were you researching during your Master’s degree? My main thesis project was with Dr. Ming-Sound Tsao. I studied the genomics of solitary fibrous tumours which are uncommon tumours of the chest wall cavity.  I also did various side-projects with Dr. Tsao studying other thoracic tumours and with Dr. Blaise Clarke studying gynecologic tumours.

What were you trying to discover? I was investigating the genomic abnormalities in these tumours, trying to form a better understanding of the pathogenesis of these tumours, and exploring the presence of genomic prognostic markers that can differentiate between benign and malignant tumours. This may have implications in patient management and follow-up care. Most of the cases are benign so they’re treated surgically, but some cases are malignant and do recur and that’s why we’re a bit unsure of how to deal with these tumours. We discovered a pattern of genomic changes unique to the malignant tumours, highlighting the potential pathways that are deregulated as these tumours progress.

How could this research translate into clinical practice? The current results represent the early stages of our understanding of these tumours. Large-scale validation and supplementation, with a further look at mutations, translocations and other complex genomic changes, would be the appropriate next step before application to clinical practice.

How did you become interested in this specific area of research? What I liked about this is that it’s an uncommon and understudied tumour. These tumours can teach us a lot about cancer development, and have historically helped us discover many important cancer genes and genomic changes such as p53 and Rb.

Why are you interested in cancer research in general? It’s a killer. I think everybody has someone close to them who has been affected by this disease and it becomes personal. It really goes back to medical school from interacting with patients. I saw that the two main fields that concerned people were cancer and infertility. I didn’t see myself going into infertility, but I knew I would go into some field of cancer management or research and ended up in cancer diagnostics and research.

Why did you choose to conduct research with Dr. Tsao? He’s a world-renowned scientist in cancer research. With his clinical and research background in cancer, he was a model to me of what I want to be in the future.

How has your experience as a doctor affected your research? It has a dual effect. My background in medicine has an effect on my research and my background in research has an effect on the clinical side. I’ve seen cancer patients suffering and I know the difficulties we face in diagnosing these tumours. As I started my research fellowship, I tried to apply clinically-relevant questions to the work that I was doing. Now that I’m back to my clinical training, and as I go through my books and notes with the eyes of a researcher, I have a new perspective. Now I find myself more curious and I try to connect the science behind many pathological entities to how they would manifest in patients and under the microscope.

What do you plan to do in the future? I plan to have a job where I can have an impact in both diagnostics and research - an academic career that combines both.

Would you recommend the program to other people? Definitely. However, the person who is interested has to know what they want to get out of it. If they don’t, they might lose focus in the middle and might find themselves lost. But if they have a set of goals and know what they want to achieve, I highly recommend it. I found that Dr. Hegele and Dr. Raphael were fully supportive throughout and even after my program.

What advice would you give to potential clinician-investigators? Know what you want and, if you’re interested in the program, ask about it early on so you can get everything set up. Also try to do the program after the end of PGY 3. With this timing, I’ve had a smooth transition back to pathology.