As a youngster, Santosh Kesari, MD, PhD, often wondered: “Who are we?” That philosophical question sparked his curiosity about the brain and, later, the brain-body connection.
Today that fascination has evolved into a full-blown passion that’s led him to become one of the foremost neuro-oncologists in the country. Dr. Kesari was recently recruited by Daniel F. Kelly, MD, to join the Pacific Brain Tumor Center at Saint John’s Health Center and the John Wayne Cancer Institute as director of neuro-oncology, professor of neurosciences and chairman of the department of translational neuro-oncology and neurotherapeutics.
As a physician who treats and studies one of the most dangerous and complex forms of cancer, Dr. Kesari believes success will come from an innovative approach that combines laboratory science and clinical practice. New drugs are needed that not only penetrate tumors in the brain but also target a variety of genetic changes in tumors to allow for personalized treatments. Transformational advances will be made by moving therapies directly from patients to the lab and then back to patients, he says, calling this approach “human science.”
“The patient’s disease is difficult to replicate in the lab,” he explains. “However, if we start with the patient first; then we can do better modeling in the lab.”
A physician-scientist who’s listed among America’s Top Doctors®, Dr. Kesari brings to the Health Center expertise in the treatment of brain cancer and general neurology as well as ample experience as a scientist studying primary and metastatic brain tumors and rare conditions such as paraneoplastic neurologic syndromes. His research involves immunotherapy, molecular genetics, innovative drug development, cancer stem cells and development of clinical trials and biomarkers for cancers. Before joining Saint John’s he was professor of neurosciences at the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine and director of neuro-oncology at Moores UC San Diego Cancer Center.
He began to embrace the concept of “human science” while at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. He had observed a patient whose brain tumor had responded to an off-label drug, Gleevec, yet no one understood why. Dr. Kesari analyzed the molecular aspects of the patient’s tumor tissue and found a marker that predicted why that patient responded to the treatment. That discovery resulted in a clinical trial of a newer drug in patients with that same biomarker.
He is enthusiastic about expanding on his many clinical and research achievements at the Pacific Brain Tumor Center and the John Wayne Cancer Institute.
“We’re going to build a robust clinical program to see patients with all types of adult and pediatric brain cancers and neurological disorders as well as conduct state-of-the-art clinical trials, including immunotherapy, targeted therapies, stem-cell therapies and biomarker-based studies,” he says. “On the lab side, we’ll continue pushing the basic understanding of brain cancers and developing new drugs for these types of cancers. We also need to better understand the side effects (neurotoxicity) of our treatments on the normal brain so we can prevent this.”
In his role, Dr. Kesari also intends to build extended networks for clinical trials throughout the Providence Health & Services system and at other institutions in Southern California to advance work on personalized treatments of brain cancers (treatments aimed at the unique genetic and biological characteristics of that specific patient’s disease).
Dr. Kesari will join the newly formed Pacific Neuroscience Institute, a leading West Coast destination and international referral center for minimally invasive surgery and comprehensive care for brain, pituitary and skull base tumors, and sinonasal and orbital disorders. Founded by Dr. Kelly, Chester Griffiths, MD, and Howard Krauss, MD, Pacific Neuroscience Institute will also provide treatment for stroke, facial pain syndromes, adult hydrocephalus, and eventually, movement disorders. A particular focus of the Pacific Neuroscience Institute will be on clinical and translational research and fellowship training.
“We are extremely fortunate to have Dr. Kesari join our team here at Saint John’s and the John Wayne Cancer Institute,” says Dr. Kelly. “His approach of novel, safer targeted therapies based on tumor genomic profiling and immunotherapy coupled with our concept of providing minimally invasive keyhole surgery will propel us into a new era of brain cancer care.”
Born in Hyderabad, India, Dr. Kesari moved to West Virginia at age 7. He was inspired by his father’s practice there as a rural primary care physician and earned his doctoral and medical degrees at the University of Pennsylvania. He completed a residency in neurology at Harvard Medical School’s Brigham & Women’s Hospital and a postdoctoral fellowship in neuro-oncology at Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. He was on the faculty of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute for six years before moving to UC San Diego.
During breaks from his busy work schedule, Dr. Kesari enjoys traveling and spending time with his family. He and his wife, Jyothsna, have three children: two daughters, ages 10 and 5, and an 8-year-old son. “As a family we are looking forward to new experiences and exciting times in a vibrant city.”
From Providence Saint John’s Health Center’s publication, BREAKTHROUGHS, FALL 2015
Written by Nancy Brands Ward
Cover Photograph by Scott Gilbert