Ready to Lead

Parvesh Kumar, M.D., named chair of radiation oncology.

by Alicia Di Rado

Parvesh Kumar, M.D., has been named chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology, a role held for more than 20 years by Zbigniew Petrovich, M.D., the Albert Soiland Professor of Radiation Biology, who stepped down as chair earlier this year.

Most recently professor and chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School (RWJMS)/University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Jersey, Kumar brings with him in-depth experience in an academic cancer center setting.

He was associate cancer center director for radiation oncology at the Cancer Institute of New Jersey, a National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center. As the first chair of a new radiation oncology department at RWJMS, Kumar established the department’s research, clinical and administrative underpinnings, including recruiting radiation oncologists and physicists.

Kumar says he looks forward to the challenges of leading the Keck School’s Department of Radiation Oncology, focusing its research and clinical efforts in line with the school’s strategic plan and building esprit-de-corps. “The critical clinical and scientific mass here is exciting,” he says, ensconced in his USC/Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center office.

He praised the radiation oncology faculty and staff, and noted its advanced equipment, such as the CyberKnife® and GammaKnife®. The new chair believes the department has tremendous potential to increase research activities and build more clinical programs.

Fellow physicians, researchers and administrators have hailed the new radiation oncologist.

“We are fortunate that Dr. Kumar brings his experience as a successful department chair to the Keck School of Medicine,” says Keck School Dean Stephen J. Ryan, M.D. “He has built a clinically successful program and works well with hospital partners, while emphasizing the importance of the research and academic missions.”

Martin H. Weiss, M.D., the Martin H. Weiss Chair in Neurosurgery, led the search committee charged with recruiting the new chair and said the committee was impressed with Kumar’s experience and character. Kumar is an “accomplished clinician with academic objectives, and a team player who can mobilize his colleagues to academic pursuits,” Weiss says.

As if to prove Weiss right, Kumar already has begun reorganizing conferences within the department to better meet its academic, clinical and teaching missions.

“Everyone expects you to make changes as the new chair, but I don’t believe in making changes for the sake of making changes,” Kumar says. Instead, his philosophy is “if it’s not broken, don’t try to fix it.”

During his first year, Kumar will recruit six new faculty members: two clinical and one translational radiation oncologist, as well as three physicists.

Recruitment is already underway, with second visits being planned for several radiation oncologist and physicist candidates. Kumar hopes to later recruit a radiation biologist.

At the same time, he plans to expand clinical programs, including those in intensity-modulated radiation therapy and CyberKnife, encourage clinical trials (especially those initiated by Keck School investigators) and collaborate with physicians in other disciplines in areas of head-and-neck, prostate and lung cancers.

Kumar has tackled treatment of these cancers in his own investigations. Nationally recognized for his research, he has been radiation oncology principal investigator for several national trials in head-and-neck tumors and prostate and lung cancers through the Radiation Therapy Oncology Group and Cancer and Leukemia Group B.

Moreover, he has published extensively on anemia and radiation therapy in patients with head-and-neck cancer. When tumor cells are insufficiently supplied with oxygen, as is the case when patients are anemic, radiation therapy becomes less effective, he explains.

He will be researching ways to make tumor cells more oxygenated, and thus more responsive to radiation therapy. He has also been involved in the intra-arterial use of chemotherapy and radiation therapy for head-and-neck cancer, a clinical and research multi-modality program he hopes to develop at USC.

Kumar graduated from the University of Kansas, Lawrence, in 1981 and earned his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering with honors. He grew up in Kansas (becoming a big Kansas City Chiefs fan along the way, he adds). Then, as a first-year student at the University of Kansas Medical School, he found his calling when he took an afternoon elective in radiation therapy.

“They talked about treating patients with photons and electrons,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’”

He later did his residency training in radiation oncology at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, where he was selected chief resident and American Cancer Society Fellow his senior year. After finishing his residency, he

moved to the University of Tennessee and St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. At age 29, he was already leading the Veterans Administration Medical Center’s Radiation Oncology Department, affiliated with the University of Tennessee. He then moved to RWJMS.

In his current role, he says he will measure his success by the success of faculty members and the expansion of new clinical programs, as well as increasing research within the department.

“I look at every problem as an opportunity,” he says, “every challenge as a way to do things better.

“Our ultimate mission in an academic setting is to offer patients the best in clinical care and to find a cure for cancer.”