Targeted and Integrative Treatment: Dr. Steven Vasilev brings his science, research and whole-person approach to the Institute

January 24, 2017
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Women who are diagnosed with gynecologic cancers have a new ally in their corner. Steven A. Vasilev, MD, a nationally recognized gynecologic oncologist, recently joined the John Wayne Cancer Institute. Dr. Vasilev was among the country’s first surgeons to perform minimally invasive radical gynecologic laparoscopic surgery in the early 1990s and is an expert in robot-assisted minimally invasive surgery.

Gynecologic oncologists treat cancers of the female reproductive organs. The most challenging gynecologic malignancy Dr. Vasilev treats is ovarian cancer. A close second is a form of uterine cancer that is particularly lethal.

“Epithelial ovarian and uterine malignancies are relatively common,” says Dr. Vasilev, who also joined the staff of Providence Saint John’s Health Center. “But they are alarmingly lethal for two reasons. First is the lack of good screening tools for earlier diagnosis, when both cancers have higher cure rates. Second is the lack of a way to accurately determine which patients require more aggressive treatment after surgery and the ability to diagnose recurrence earlier when it is more treatable.”

As professor and director of gynecologic oncology at the Institute, Dr. Vasilev will be building a research program—which includes clinical trials—designed to answer crucial questions and translational investigation about these cancers. “This opportunity was central to my decision to join the Institute. If it were not for the ability to offer both to my patients, I would not be here,” he says.

“The goal is to weed out the garbage ‘alternative treatments that may not help or even hurt someone versus what can actually support health, reduce symptoms and possibly event extend survival." – Dr. Steven Vasilev

Many gynecologic cancer patients will develop large and widespread disease recurrence within 18 months, before conventional tools can discover it, he says. “These problems of early primary diagnosis and earlier diagnosis of recurrence go hand-in-hand, and urgent advances are required from screening to management of advanced cancer and survivorship. Fortunately such confluent advances are made possible by genomic technologies.”

At the Institute, Dr. Vasilev will join a team of researchers who are exploring such gene-based technologies, including “liquid biopsies,” to improve cancer diagnosis and monitoring. Tumors shed genetic material (cell-free DNA) that can be captured in the bloodstream to alert doctors to a potential recurrence and options for precisely targeted therapy.

Cancer stem cells and circulating tumor cells “are both markers of disease presence and targets for management,” Dr. Vasilev explains. “They represent the root origin of cancer growth and need to be controlled or eliminated. They are potential targets for both medications and nutritional and lifestyle modification.”

His research objectives are to identify combinations of genes that drive cancer, based on studies of tissue specimens that could be used in liquid biopsies. He hopes to screen for cancer using cell-free DNA as part of a clinical trial.

Women diagnosed with cancer will have additional genomic tests performed to see if they would benefit from newer targeted therapies (medications addressing a specific gene mutation) in addition to conventional treatments. Patients will also be monitored for their response to the treatment and for early signs of recurrence, Dr. Vasilev says.

“As part of the treatment plan, patients who are amenable will undergo an active nutrient and lifestyle modification program,” he adds. “Those who elect to do so will be compared to those who do not in terms of recurrence rates, biomarker activity and quality of life.” The results, he says, will help determine who requires aggressive chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy versus regimented lifestyle and nutrient modification as post-surgical management strategies.

Dr. Vasilev believes that nutrition and lifestyle make a big difference in some types of cancer progression. “Developing data strongly suggests that for some survivors, this is a solid strategy, inexpensive and a much gentler way to control their cancer than chemo and radiation.”

He has plenty of expertise in holistic cancer care. He is the first physician in the United States to be quadruple-board-certified in obstetrics and gynecology, gynecologic oncology and integrative and holistic medicine. “Others practice it but are often under-qualified and not certified, especially when it concerns cancer,” he notes.

His book, Cancer Cureology, is subtitled Integrative Natural Anti-Cancer Answers: The Science and Truth. It provides scientifically supportable natural strategies and suggestions for a survivor’s journey. “The goal is to weed out the garbage ‘alternative treatments’ that may not help or even hurt someone versus what can actually support health, reduce symptoms and possibly even extend survival.”

This integrative approach can produce many patient benefits and create new opportunities, including potential for early diagnosis, longer life and higher quality of life, Dr. Vasilev says. Through minimally invasive surgery, genomic-based treatments and holistic care, patients will experience the very best medicine has to offer, he says. “In this regard, Saint John’s and the John Wayne Cancer Institute will stand out as a unique magnet referral center offering a higher level of care.”

For more information on how to support the new gynecologic oncology research program, please contact Cookie Galanti at 310-829-8423.