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Cancer Pioneer

St. Luke's official announcement of
Philip A. Salem, M.D. Chair

St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital (St. Luke’s) announces the Philip A. Salem, M.D., Chair in Cancer Research, established to honor Dr. Salem’s contributions to cancer medicine. “We are enormously gratified to announce that St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital has formally established the Philip A. Salem, M.D., Chair in Cancer Research to serve as a lasting tribute to his leadership and vision in the field of oncology.  He has spent his professional life overcoming challenges that others only dreamed of conquering and this chair recognizes his contributions to advances in cancer treatment.” Said Margaret M. Van Bree, CEO, St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital, and senior vice president, St. Luke’s Episcopal Health System.

“It is very humbling to receive such an honor,” said Dr. Salem, director of St. Luke’s Cancer Research Program. “I’m thankful and privileged for the opportunity to treat cancer patients and conduct cancer research.  I hope this endowment will pave the way for future physicians to do more research and discover new treatments.  Research is the key to diminishing human suffering.”

For patients such as Dallas businessman Daryl Snadon, Dr. Salem’s knowledge, commitment and compassion offer extended years of life and hope. Snadon, who received pancreatic cancer treatment more than 10 years ago at St. Luke’s, now leads a cancer-free life, thanks to Dr. Salem.

“It’s hard to find a doctor like him,” said Snadon, the principal fundraiser for the Salem Chair in Cancer Research. “His concern and unique approach to patient care is inspiring to others. I’m grateful that he and his team helped me become cancer-free. I hope his legacy will help other physicians and patients.”

Dr. Salem began treating cancer 42 years ago. He received his medical degree from the American University of Beirut College of Medicine in 1965. He began his career in cancer research and treatment as a fellow in medical oncology at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York in 1968. After two years at this center, he moved to Houston and spent an additional year of fellowship at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

In September, 1971, Dr. Salem returned to Beirut and joined the American University of Beirut Medical Center where he established the first cancer research and treatment program in the Arab world. He continued to serve on the faculty of this university until 1986. In January, 1987, Dr. Salem joined the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, as professor of cancer treatment and research.  In September, 1991, he joined St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital as the first director of its cancer research program.

“Dr. Salem’s vast experience in cancer research is a great testament to the extensive body of knowledge that the St. Luke’s medical staff is known for worldwide,” said Dr. Van Bree. “St. Luke’s is fortunate to have such an accomplished physician as Dr. Salem.”

Dr. Salem has been recognized for his contributions to cancer medicine all over the world.  In the early 1970s he was among the first researchers to demonstrate that a chronic repetitive infectious insult to the gastrointestinal mucosa would eventually lead to inflammatory changes that left untreated would progress to malignancy.  In addition, he discovered that treating these infections with antibiotics at an early stage could actually prevent and reverse the development of cancer.  His work on Immunoproliferative Small Intestinal Disease (a form of intestinal cancer that starts as a benign process and deteriorates into malignancy), and the relationship between infection and the development of cancer in the intestine has become a classic in modern medicine.  His pioneering work with chemoprevention (reversing the course of progression from benign to malignant disease), has led to some of today’s major research breakthroughs and concepts that focus on isolating and treating such precancerous infections and conditions.  The pioneering work conducted by Dr. Salem and others during the last 30 years was part of the process that led to the Nobel Prize winning research linking a bacterium called H. pylori to stomach cancer.  That prize was awarded to two Australian scientists in the year 2005.  Dr. Salem says “The concept that a regular simple infection could eventually lead to malignancy and if this infection is treated and eradicated early, cancer can be prevented, was considered heresy 20 years ago, but now is recognized as one of the major achievements of modern cancer research”.  He adds “The awarding of the Nobel Prize for research linking cancer to infection and the development of the cervical cancer vaccine has set the stage for the new era. In the last 50 years, research has focused on treating established disease, and that was good.  However, it is time now to promote research for disease prevention. The impact of the latter research will be enormous”.

In 1992, as director of St. Luke’s Cancer Research Program, Dr. Salem led a team of St. Luke’s investigators in collaboration with the Texas Community Oncology Network from M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. The alliance resulted in the introduction of more than 30 clinical cancer research trials.  He was the St. Luke’s principal investigator for the national study on chemoprevention of breast cancer.  That study eventually led to the recognition that breast cancer is indeed preventable.  These trials confirmed that women at high risk for breast cancer can reduce their chances for developing the disease in the future if they receive drugs like raloxifene or tamoxifen.  This was a milestone in research on breast cancer and its prevention.

In addition to the above, Dr. Salem was responsible for defining the role of one of the major and most commonly used drugs in cancer therapy, cisplatinum.  Cisplatinum was discovered in the early 70s as an agent of potential use in cancer treatment, but was extremely toxic when given in one single dose.

At M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, and with his team, Dr. Salem worked on the fractionation of the dose of cisplatinum and instead of giving the whole dose over a period of 1-2 hours; the dose was given over several days.  Fractionation of the dose made the drug significantly less toxic and more efficacious.  Due to his work, cisplatinum is now used safely all over the world. 

Besides his contributions to medicine, Dr. Salem made major contributions to America.  In May, 1994, he received the Senatorial Medal of Freedom which is the highest honor that members of the U.S. Senate can bestow on any one.  In May, 1998, he was awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor by the National Ethnic Coalition Organization (NECO) for his exceptional humanitarian efforts and outstanding contributions to American science.  In March, 2006, he was honored in Rome as “the Scientist of the Year” by La Fondazione Foedus Cultura Impresa Solidarietà (National Italian Foundation for the Promotion of Science and Culture).  A book on his life and ideas has been published and two other similar books are in production.  Dr. Salem continues to serve as Director of Cancer Research at St. Luke’s and principal investigator for many of the research projects at this hospital, including those on the prevention of breast cancer.  Lastly, St. Luke’s would like to salute his pioneering spirit which is critical to the way cancer will be diagnosed and treated in the future.  This Chair is “an investment in landmark advancements for generations to come” says Dr. Van Bree.