It was interacting with cancer patients and their families early on in his medical training, and seeing their unique appreciation for life, that Simon Khagi, MD, found his calling.
Khagi joined the UNC faculty in 2016 and is the director of the University of North Carolina Brain Tumor Program, an assistant professor in the Division of Hematology/Oncology and Department of Neurosurgery, and a member of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. He is working with teams of scientists and doctors at the UNC School of Medicine to study investigational therapies to try to improve survival for patients with glioblastoma, the most aggressive primary brain tumor, and other brain cancers.
We sat down with him to discuss his passions and inspiration.
What do you love about your position at UNC Lineberger?
I think it’s an opportunity to work with people who are smarter than myself, and to make an impact in the lives of my patients with brain tumors. One of the reasons I came to UNC was because it offered me this opportunity to engage with brilliant scientists who were working on cutting-edge research. I really looked at them as having the potential to impact my patients’ lives the most. I felt that I could lead the effort on the clinical side to start translating this promising basic science into something that can be applied to humans. I have learned along the way that it takes a village to bring out the best in people. I think there’s an inherent collaborative spirit at UNC that is unlike any other place I have ever been to, where people are just excited to work together for the benefit of others. There isn’t too much ego around here, and I feel that really makes it easy to accomplish our main tasks, which is to provide for the patients of North Carolina.
Can you share one moment where you feel you were making a difference?
I had a patient who was diagnosed with an extremely rare and aggressive variant of glioblastoma. He had standard surgery, followed by chemotherapy and radiation. I also sequenced his tumor to see if there were any vulnerabilities and alterations. With my oncology training and my understanding of genetic sequencing of tumors, I decided to exploit a vulnerability in the BRAF gene that is commonly found in melanoma. I knew that there were targeted therapies for this that are FDA approved. We got that started for him, and he was able to go about his activities of daily living just like he was before he was diagnosed. He’s had an amazing response.
Why did you choose neuro-oncology?
It’s really the hope that I can improve the survival rate, that I can help these patients. What makes me happy is trying to make a difference in a disease that has very little options. I think there’s fertile ground to make an impact in somebody’s life. So that’s why I do what I do.
What pushed me in that direction? It started when I was a resident at Dartmouth. I initially went into residency wanting to be a cardiologist, and I realized very quickly that this is not something I wanted to do. While on the oncology service during residency, I started interacting with patients and families, especially those who were the sickest and had the least amount of time to live. I really enjoyed interacting with these families and these patients who really seemed to live life to the fullest. That was followed by a fellowship at Tufts, where I was exposed to the idea of neuro-oncology. The outcomes were uniformly poor, and options were uniformly limited. I went into the lab and started doing drug development work looking at novel targeted therapy. I also got some great mentorship from a neuro-oncologist at Tufts. Understanding that the field is ripe for improvement, that there is a lot of research that I can be engaged in, I decide to further my skill set by going to Duke for a neuro-oncology fellowship. I started to gain those “neurology-esque” skills that I needed to treat these patients adequately. So that’s how I found myself in neuro-oncology.
If you weren’t doing this, what career would you see yourself doing?
If I wasn’t in neuro-oncology, I think I’d still be an oncologist. But if I wasn’t an oncologist, I honestly have no idea what I would be doing. I don’t think I would be as happy. I don’t know. I like inventing things, looking at problems and seeing if I can solve it. Particularly in devices. I have some side project with my neurosurgery colleagues to try to invent devices. So maybe I’d be an engineer. I enjoy solving problems.