Leaders Made Here

September 01, 2013

David W. Ollila, MD, says his fellowship at JWCI came at just the right time.
WRITTEN BY LAURA ROE STEVENS

David W. Ollila, MDDavid W. Ollila, MD, says the timing of his surgical oncology fellowship at the John Wayne Cancer Institute couldn’t have been any better. In 1995, on the heels of sentinel node procedure discoveries for melanoma and breast cancer, Dr. Ollila joined “the giants” at the Institute “who were proving that sentinel node research and treatment was important. It was a really exciting time,” he recalls.

Between 1995 and 1998 while at the Institute, Dr. Ollila developed his areas of special interest: clinical trial development and translational research in breast cancer and melanoma patients. Recently named the James H. and Jesse E. Millis Distinguished Professor of surgery at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, he also serves as the associate director of the North Carolina Cancer Hospital. His experience at the Institute has been integral in his current role at UNC.

Today, Dr. Ollila is the surgical director for both the multidisciplinary breast program and the multidisciplinary skin cancer and melanoma program at the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. He is currently a member of the breast committee of the Alliance for Clinical Trials in Oncology.

Dr. Ollila’s breast cancer research interests include work derived from his expertise in sentinel node biopsy – a technique for identifying the lymph node most likely to contain cancer metastasis. He was one of the first researchers to examine the use of sentinel lymph node biopsy as a method to assess the extent of a tumor, an advance that can minimize surgery in women undergoing neoadjuvant, or preoperative, chemotherapy.

“The experience at the John Wayne Cancer Institute was incredible, based on what I was learning and what I was getting exposed to,” he says. “Believe it or not, back then, there were a lot of critics regarding sentinel node research, and at the Institute, we were proving that this work was biologically relevant. It just doesn’t get any better than that.”

“Dr. Ollila is emblematic of one of the best things about the John Wayne Cancer Institute: the training of new generations of clinicians and researchers who change and improve the care of cancer patients,” says Mark B. Faries, MD, director of the complex general surgical oncology fellowship and director of melanoma research and therapeutic immunology. “He continues to collaborate with us in current research as part of a network of alumni who contribute to the ongoing success of the Institute. He is also an excellent teacher, having gone on to train another generation of surgeons at his current institution, allowing the benefits of his education here to multiply far beyond the Institute’s original investment.”

In recent years, Dr. Ollila has received grants for sentinel node studies involving novel approaches for patients with large breast cancer tumors. He is currently conducting a study attempting to identify which melanoma patients may have a poor prognostic based on genetic characteristics. He speaks both nationally and internationally on melanoma and breast cancer care and treatment. Dr. Ollila lives in Chapel Hill with his wife, Mary, and their two daughters, Elizabeth, 14, and Francine, 11.