World-Renowned Pancreatic Cancer Expert to Lead Surgical Oncology at Sylvester

Renowned pancreatic cancer clinician and scientist Nipun B. Merchant, M.D., is joining the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center as Chief Surgical Officer and Director of Surgical Oncology Research Programs. Merchant comes to the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and UHealth – University of Miami Health System from Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where he has been the Director of the Vanderbilt Pancreas Center, Chief of GI Surgical Oncology and Co-Leader of the GI Oncology Program at Vanderbilt-Ingram Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Merchant will also take on the newly created position of Vice Chair of Surgical Oncologic Services and Academic Affairs within the DeWitt Daughtry Family Department of Surgery and will be the Chief of Surgical Oncology at University of Miami Hospital as well as Chief Surgical Officer at UMHC/Sylvester. In addition, he will serve as Chief of the Division of Surgical Oncology.

Through these roles, he will be the leader/strategist coordinating cancer-related programs in the fields of general, endocrine, colorectal, and thoracic surgery. As Vice Chair, he will lead the clinical and research enterprises of surgical oncology and oversee the educational and academic programs.

After 14 years at Vanderbilt, Merchant was lured to join the UHealth team by the strength and robust growth of both the Department of Surgery under Chair Alan Livingstone, M.D., and Sylvester under the leadership of Director Stephen D. Nimer, M.D. “I was very impressed with how well the Department of Surgery has run under the leadership of Alan Livingstone and was equally impressed with the commitment to grow both the research and clinical infrastructure of surgical oncology and the cancer center that Stephen Nimer has already shown through his recruitment of renowned clinicians and scientists,” Merchant said.
Merchant’s clinical practice is in GI malignancies with a focus on hepatobiliary and pancreatic cancers. “As a surgical oncologist, I have had the opportunity to follow patients long-term and develop meaningful relationships with them and their families over time” – opportunities, he says, that drew him to the field.

The challenge of pancreatic cancer, one of the deadliest cancers with an overall survival rate of just five percent for five years, is the focus of his research. In most cases, by the time pancreatic cancer is diagnosed, it is fairly advanced. There is no method of early detection and only about 15 percent of patients are eligible for surgery at the time of diagnosis. That option aside, there are few effective therapies. “It’s a very resistant cancer that does not respond well to any type of chemotherapy that we have,” said Merchant, who starts at UHealth January 1.

The reason for that resistance is multi-factorial, but it appears to be related to the tumor micro-environment. Merchant explains that a pancreatic tumor is surrounded by dense stroma, connective tissue that prevents drugs from entering the tumor, making it resistant to any therapies currently used.

Merchant hopes to change that with his work at Sylvester. He brings with him two research scientists and several ongoing studies, including a $1 million R01 grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the pancreatic tumor micro-environment, specifically examining how the stroma communicates with the tumor and the signaling that occurs between the two components. “We’ve identified certain targets that we believe are key resistance signaling pathways,” said Merchant. “We have a lot of evidence to show how to overcome some of that resistance by targeting these pathways.”

A prolific researcher and educator, Merchant has published more than 100 articles and has actively mentored dozens of medical students, residents, fellows and faculty. Merchant holds positions in 20 professional societies, including leadership roles in the Society of Surgical Oncology and the Society of University Surgeons and on the Board of Governors of the American College of Surgeons.
Before joining Vanderbilt University Medical Center, he completed a surgical oncology fellowship at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and was assistant professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins University Medical School.

“Nipun is one of those rare individuals who combines great clinical expertise, scientific insight and accomplishments, a track record of strong leadership, and the compassion and humility needed to be a world-class cancer physician-scientist,” said Nimer. “His pioneering work in pancreas cancer brings great hope to patients and families around the world. We are thrilled to have his expertise, and that of the many people he will surround himself with, at Sylvester, as we continue to build our cancer research capabilities to ensure our future success. Ultimately, patients in South Florida and beyond benefit from the amazingly talented physicians and researchers that we bring to our region.”

Merchant believes the field of pancreatic cancer is moving closer to having biomarkers that serve as targets for drug therapies, much like those discovered in breast, colon, melanoma and lung cancers. Oncologists are discovering that every cancer is heterogeneous and has its own genomic profile.

“We’re getting to the point for many cancers, and hopefully soon for pancreatic cancer, that we can identify certain actionable mutations, genetic mutations within the individual tumor, that we can target based on that individual patient’s genomic profile,” Merchant said.

The goal is to develop more personalized cancer care with specific targeted therapies. Merchant believes the way to make those new breakthroughs is to work in a multi-disciplinary environment, with scientists, surgeons, oncologists, radiologists and pathologists all sharing information — a structure already in place at Sylvester. Merchant said he hopes to “make our collaborations even more comprehensive, linking research and clinical trials, so we improve outcomes and care.”

Livingstone said Merchant’s arrival will benefit all facets of UHealth. “Nipun’s commitment to the full mission of academic medicine is outstanding. He brings an exceptional level of expertise to our clinical, research and educational enterprises.”

In his new positions, Merchant sees great promise. “I see my role to help facilitate and enhance the multidisciplinary approach to cancer care that provides cutting-edge clinical care and transformational research, making UHealth a pre-eminent destination program not only for South Florida, but for the Caribbean, South America and beyond.”

Merchant is actively involved in a number of pancreatic cancer advocacy groups such as the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network and The Lustgarten Foundation, and serves on the Pancreatic Cancer Task Force of the National Cancer Institute and the Pancreas Adenocarcinoma Panel of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network.

Merchant has been married to his wife, Sonia, for 22 years, and they have two children — a son, Shaan, who is a senior in high school and a daughter, Jaisal, who is a sophomore in college.

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