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For Matthew Milowsky, MD, the why of genitourinary cancers is just as important to him as the how and what. As a former philosophy major, it’s natural that the questions behind these cancers are what drive the clinician and researcher to explore new methods to treat and care for patients.

Matthew Milowsky, MD

UNC Lineberger’s Milowsky is the newly named George Gabriel and Frances Gable Villere Distinguished Professor of Bladder and Genitourinary Cancer Research, the section chief of genitourinary oncology and co-director of the Urologic Oncology Program.

But before he achieved these accolades, Milowsky was just another kid in college, undecided about his major and his future and worried about what his dad would think.

“I always had an interest in medicine, and I ended up pursuing my undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania. I took pre-med courses, and I honestly didn’t like it at all,” he admitted. “I decided to major in philosophy. I called my father to tell him I had decided to pursue philosophy and not to go medical school, and there was a very long pause on the phone.”

With a bachelor’s degree in philosophy under his belt, Milowsky took his MCATs after graduating college and spent a gap year as a research assistant at Weill Cornell Medical Center as part of CALGB, a cancer research cooperative group. Though Milowsky pursued his doctorate at SUNY Downstate College of Medicine in New York, he didn’t know he wanted to be an oncologist. It was during his residency in Boston, wavering between oncology and nephrology, that he made his decision.

“I was drawn to oncology because of the tremendous research opportunities and so much more that needed to be done.” But the loss of his mother to cancer also played a role in guiding his decision. “Though we don’t always know what leads us in the directions that we take, I think [her death] certainly played a role. All [these things] together is what drew me to oncology.”

Milowsky spent the following years as a fellow and junior faculty member at New York-Presbyterian-Weill Cornell Medical Center followed by five years as an assistant attending physician at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, learning from mentors in the fields of medical oncology and urology. Milowsky had originally intended to work in hematology, but at the urging of his primary mentor, Dr. David Nanus he decided to pursue genitourinary oncology. “I was so fortunate to have outstanding mentors including David, two urologists, Neil Bander and Bernie Bochner and Dean Bajorin, the leader in the field of bladder cancer research.

Taking the next step in his career at UNC Lineberger was an easy decision for Milowsky. He assumed the section chief role for genitourinary oncology because it was a good direction for his career, but the caliber of the team truly sealed the deal.

“I knew UNC Lineberger was a collegial, collaborative environment to work in, and that was incredibly appealing. As well as the exceptional people … an absolutely outstanding group of colleagues in medical oncology, urology and radiation oncology,” he said.

Milowsky’s clinical and research work at UNC Lineberger has spanned eight years, and his star is still rising. Recently, Milowsky was named a distinguished professor, an endowed position that honors accomplished faculty and comes with sustained funding to further research programs, and recruit and retain high-performing faculty.

Left to right: Chris Villere, Wally Loewenbaum, Lil Loewenbaum, Milowsky, Lamar Villere, Bess Loewenbaum, Michelle Villere and Shelley Earp, MD, director of UNC Lineberger

Named for his good friend and community advocate George Villere who died of bladder cancer, Wally Loewenbaum and his wife Lil donated money for the professorship, based on their desire to support Milowsky’s research work and recognize Villere, a gesture that truly touched his family.

“Something like this really makes you think long and hard about the meaning of the word ‘legacy’,” said Lamar Villere, George’s son. “To have Dad’s name and memory linked to the incredible work that [Milowsky] and others at UNC Lineberger are doing gives us all the real sense that his spirit is alive and, consistent with Dad’s personality, focused on helping others. When Matt, [Shelton Earp] and the rest of the team explained some of the research and clinical trials they were working on, I could literally hear Dad telling all of his friends about it; he would have been so proud and honored to be connected to it.”

“I think we’ve all lost individuals that are close to us, and to be able to have a professorship named after someone that was clearly so incredibly meaningful to their family and the community at large is very special. It’s a privilege and a tremendous honor,” Milowsky said.

With the support from the Loewenbaums, Milowsky said his goal is to further the recent research progress made in urological cancers including bladder cancer, which historically has seen fewer breakthroughs than other cancer types over the past 30 years.

“Clinical and translational research related to patient care is critically important to me, and with bladder cancer, there’s really been very little progress until recently in almost three decades, he said. “The drive to want to develop new therapies for patients with this devastating disease is what brings me to work every day.”

Milowsky’s research vision encompasses translational research that begins with hard work in the labs, success in clinical trials and ultimately, new therapies for patients with genitourinary cancers.

“We have efforts that are lab based, translational, and clinical research, and integrating these is the goal,” he said. “To continue to build the program, to further develop treatments, UNC Lineberger lends itself well to that with the collaborative, collegial environment.”

Milowsky’s research saw him leading an effort sponsored by the Bladder Cancer Advocacy Network (BCAN) with eight participating academic institutions to deliver a next generation sequencing report to patients to explore potential therapies and also to create a rich biorepository for future collaborative research efforts. Milowsky said he’s excited about the potential research outcomes as the team analyzes the clinical data, the RNA- and DNA-sequencing information, and the biorepository specimens.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity to learn more about the underlying biology of bladder cancer,” Milowsky said. “I love the idea of fostering collaboration with individuals throughout the country and the world.”

And while his patients and research are so very important, Milowsky said. “It is my wife, Amy, and our three children, Madeline, Maxwell and Mia who make every day better than next.”