A Sure Hand at Treating Prostate Cancer: Dr. Timothy G. Wilson, an expert at robotic surgery, joins Saint John’s

July 16, 2015
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Growing up the third of five boys in a middle-class family in rural Oregon, Timothy G. Wilson, MD, so admired his small-town family practitioner that he set on a course to follow in his footsteps.

But then as often happens, Dr. Wilson, who joined the John Wayne Cancer Institute in April as professor and chief of urology and director of the new urologic oncology research program, found his passion—surgery—while in medical school at Oregon Health Sciences University.

“Surgery allows you to see a problem and fix it,” says Dr. Wilson, adding that in urology surgeons operate on many parts of the body, including the pelvis, kidneys and lung areas. “The surgeries are very often successful—it’s really great work.”

Urologic malignancies account for about 40% of all cancers and range from men with prostate and testicular cancer to men and women with kidney or bladder cancer. Surgery also often involves reconstruction that significantly enhances a patient’s’ post-surgery quality of life. For example, advanced techniques now make it possible for surgeons to create a new bladder that functions internally—a previously impossible reconstruction that eliminates the need for a urine drainage bag outside the body.

Dr. Wilson focuses on cancers of the pelvis and robotic surgery. At Saint John's Health Center, Wilson and his team of urologists will use the latest in robotic surgery, the da Vinci Xi. Earlier versions have been used for prostate surgery since 2001 and for bladder and kidney cancers since 2003.

With the da Vinci, surgeons operate from a console that provides a close-up, high-definition, 3-D view of the patient’s anatomy. They use “joysticks” to move surgical instruments mounted on the robot through small punctures or slits in the skin.

The robot’s camera can illuminate fluorescent-labeled chemicals injected into the body to help surgeons distinguish between normal and cancerous tissues and increase the precision of surgery. Dr. Wilson says, “The robots allow for a very consistent, reliable and reproducible surgery.”

An early adaptor of robotic surgery, Dr. Wilson has performed some 3,000 over the past 15 years. His expertise in robotic-assisted laparoscopic prostatectomy is sought around the world, and he travels frequently throughout Europe and Asia to perform surgery, serve as a visiting faculty member and act as a proctor for surgeons learning robotic techniques.

At the City of Hope, where he served as chief of urology from 1992 to 2015 and as head of its prostate cancer program since 2003, Dr. Wilson was instrumental in developing a consensus among world experts on the merits of laparoscopicrobotic surgery versus open surgery for prostate and bladder cancers. After systematically reviewing the research literature, the findings were published in European Urology—one of the most respected journals in urology. The experts concluded that success rates were about equal, but robotic surgery for prostate cancer resulted in fewer complications, less blood loss, shorter hospitalizations, and quicker returns to bladder control and sexual function.

In his role at the Institute, Dr. Wilson’s vision is to find better ways of preventing, diagnosing and treating urological malignancies. That will include working to clarify issues in the current debate surrounding prostate cancer, such as when to biopsy and how to identify who truly needs surgery once diagnosed with this slow-growing cancer; looking toward improving techniques to minimize damage to surrounding tissue during surgery; and helping surgeons gain experience with new techniques through daily broadcasts of robotic surgeries online. When the program is fully underway, he hopes to have on board four or five urologists, as well as two non-physician scientists to work on research to translate new findings into medical practice.

“The Institute’s interest in profiling the genome of cancers gives us the opportunity to understand this for bladder cancers and prostate cancers as well,” Dr. Wilson says. “The Institute and I are aligned in our desire to do things in the same way. The new program we will be starting offers an exciting opportunity.”

Dr. Wilson and his wife, Cheryl, are also looking forward to living in a different part of Los Angeles with his move to the Institute. Besides engaging in a range of outdoors sports, going to the theater and traveling, the couple enjoys family time with their three grown children and 4-year-old grandson.

To learn more about supporting the work of Dr. Timothy G. Wilson and his groundbreaking research, please call Michael Avila in the Office of Development office at 310-829-8351.