Dr. David Sugarbaker

Dr. David Sugarbaker

Late Mesothelioma Specialist

Dr. David Sugarbaker was one of the world’s leading thoracic oncologists, specializing in the treatment of pulmonary malignancies, including the rare, pleural mesothelioma. With three decades of medical experience, his legacy is recognized as being a critical pioneer in mesothelioma treatment, having developed a curative surgery called the extrapleural pneumonectomy.

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Remembering Dr. Sugarbaker (1953-2018)

Dr. David Sugarbaker, renowned thoracic surgeon, passed away at the age of 65.

Dr. Sugarbaker was a giant in the field of treating mesothelioma. He was a pioneering thoracic surgical oncologist and Director of the Baylor Lung Institute at Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center in Houston, TX. In 2014, he helped open the Comprehensive Pulmonary Treatment Center at Baylor Clinic.

Dr. Sugarbaker played an integral role in developing this critical diagnostic, research and treatment facility for serious lung diseases, including for pleural mesothelioma.

In addition to leading the Division of General Thoracic Surgery at Baylor Lung Institute, Dr. Sugarbaker was also the Olga Keith Weiss Chair Professor of Surgery at the Baylor College of Medicine.

As a surgical professor, Dr. Sugarbaker was tasked with the important role of training the next generation of thoracic surgeons, who are positioned to continue the critical work of Dr. Sugarkber and other surgeons in the field of mesothelioma.

As one of the most prominent figures in the mesothelioma community, Dr. Sugarbaker’s Mesothelioma Treatment Center at Baylor attracts patients from all over the country. Known as “Dr. Mesothelioma”, Dr. Sugarbaker was highly respected by his patients and colleagues alike.

Dr. Avi Lebenthal, another mesothelioma specialist who mentored under Dr. Sugarbaker, has referred to him as the “gold standard” of mesothelioma care.

Dr. Sugarbaker approached patient care from a multimodal care philosophy, believing that no two cases of mesothelioma are the same and each patient requires a tailored treatment plan. He was also a promoter of the belief that a cure for mesothelioma is an eventual reality.

Dr. Sugarbaker's Background

Born in Jefferson City, Missouri, Dr. Sugarbaker was virtually destined for the field of medicine, being the son of a surgical oncologist and a nurse.

As a young adult, Dr. Sugarbaker assisted his father in the operating room. Being mentored by his father, Dr. Sugarbaker developed a keen interest in surgical oncology.

His brother, Dr. Paul Sugarbaker, was also heavily influenced by his family’s background and is another highly respected mesothelioma specialist.

Did You Know?

Dr. David Sugarbaker received his medical degree from Cornell University Medical School in 1979.

He completed two surgical residencies. His first was at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) in Boston, MA, which he would eventually return to become the chief of. The second residency was at Toronto General Hospital in Canada, focusing on cardiothoracic surgery.

After completing his residencies, Dr. Sugarbaker became Chief of Surgery at BWH. His work there is well-recognized in the medical community, as Dr. Sugarbaker developed the first non-cardiac thoracic surgery division in the country.

Another major accomplishment at BWH was Dr. Sugarbaker’s initiative in developing the first comprehensive tissue and blood repository, which is now an integral program for collaborative oncological research.

While at BWH, Dr. Sugarbaker also began an instructing position as Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School.

In 2002, with the goal of ultimately finding a cure for mesothelioma, Dr. Sugarbaker founded the International Mesothelioma Program (IMP), which remains a critical initiative today in collaborative mesothelioma research from around the world.

Having built up BWH’s mesothelioma program to a world-class facility, Dr. Sugarbaker left the cancer center in 2014 to take his leadership, skills, and knowledge to Texas, where he was a critical player in developing the Baylor Lung Institute.

Dr. Sugarbaker’s Medical Specializations

Over the course of his career, Dr. Sugarbaker developed certain mesothelioma specialties — even contributing to establishing a mesothelioma staging system while at BWH, called the Brigham and Women’s Staging System.

In this Brigham and Women’s mesothelioma staging criteria, stage 1 and 2 patients are deemed eligible for resectable pleural mesothelioma surgeries, a specialty that Dr. Sugarbaker became well-known for.

Pleural Mesothelioma

Dr. Sugarbaker specialized in treating stage 1 and 2 pleural mesothelioma patients.

As the developer of the curative surgical procedure, extrapleural pneumonectomy (EPP), Dr. Sugarbaker was known for aggressively treating early-stage pleural mesothelioma patients and using a multimodal approach to eliminate cancer and send the disease into remission.

Pleural mesothelioma patients who were referred to Dr. Sugarbaker had what’s deemed as resectable mesothelioma, meaning a high likelihood of being removed surgically.

During the EPP, Dr. Sugarbaker would remove the affected lung, pleura (lung lining), pericardium (heart lining), and part of the diaphragm.

Dr. Sugarbaker believed that by removing all visible signs of mesothelioma tumors and removing the lung, surrounding tissues, and partial organs, the patient will have a greater likelihood of avoiding recurrence — when the mesothelioma comes back after removal.

Dr. Sugarbaker’s EPP has been taught to countless physicians. Over time, the procedure has become more and more refined, dramatically lowering the risk of complications and increasing surgical success rates.

Personalized Multimodal Treatment

Until his death, Dr. Sugarbaker continued to look for new and unconventional ways of treating pleural mesothelioma with a multimodal approach.

The principle behind multimodal therapy is that you can effectively send mesothelioma into remission where it can be managed, provided you combine several treatments together with each one playing their own critical role in the overall strategy.

In order to know which mesothelioma treatment combinations will be most successful, Dr. Sugarbaker and the team at the Mesothelioma Treatment Center personalized medical therapies to each patient based on test results from tumor samples.

By looking at a patient’s specific genetic biomarkers found in their tissue and blood samples, Dr. Sugarbaker and his team would determine which treatments are likely to work best for the individual patient.

Based on the patient’s tissue samples, Dr. Sugarbaker and his team would then develop a surgery-based treatment plan that may include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and new and novel treatments available through Baylor’s clinical trials program.

Tumor testing also informed Dr. Sugarbaker of the order in which patients should receive these treatments.

Dr. Sugarbaker's Patients

Patients who have worked with Dr. Sugarbaker continue to attest not only to his surgical proficiency but to his compassion and commitment as a leader.

Having given countless patients back their lives, many of Dr. Sugarbaker’s former mesothelioma patients are today known as survivors.

Some of them work within the medical community to raise awareness about the importance of aggressive, multimodal therapies like those provided by Dr. Sugarbaker and his team at Baylor Lung Institute.

Mesothelioma Support Team
Stephanie KiddWritten by:


Stephanie Kidd grew up in a family of civil servants, blue-collar workers, and medical caregivers. Upon graduating Summa Cum Laude from Stetson University, she began her career specializing in worker safety regulations and communications. Now, a proud member of the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) and Editor-in-Chief of the Mesothelioma Cancer Network, Stephanie serves as a voice for mesothelioma victims and their families.

View 2 Sources
  1. Baylor College of Medicine, “Dr. David J Sugarbaker, M.D.” Retrieved from: https://www.bcm.edu/people/view/david-sugarbaker-m-d/8a46e330-b193-11e3-a42d-005056b104be. Accessed on January 10, 2018.
  2. Mesothelioma Treatment Center, “How is Mesothelioma Treated?” Retrived from: http://mesotreatmentcenter.org/understanding-mesothelioma/how-is-mesothelioma-treated/. Accessed on January 10, 2018.
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