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Karam named head of radiation oncology department

Innovative physician-scientist specializing in head and neck, pancreatic cancers also known as influential mentor

by Julia Evangelou StraitApril 30, 2024

Courtesy of Sana Karam

Sana D. Karam, MD, PhD, a renowned radiation oncologist widely known for cutting-edge cancer research that combines radiation therapy and immunotherapy to treat head and neck, and pancreatic tumors, has been named the James S. McDonnell Professor of Radiation Oncology and head of the Department of Radiation Oncology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Her appointment begins Oct. 1.

Karam comes to WashU Medicine from the University of Colorado School of Medicine, where she is the Marsico Endowed Chair of Head and Neck Cancer Research and a professor and vice chair of translational research in the Department of Radiation Oncology.

A passionate clinician, Karam also is an innovative scientist. She holds three investigator-initiated R01 grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and multiple industry-sponsored awards, is project leader of the Head and Neck Cancer SPORE at the University of Colorado and leads numerous investigator-initiated trials focused on advancing research from the laboratory bench to the bedside.

“Our leadership team was deeply impressed by Dr. Karam’s experience and accomplishments and unanimously endorsed her to shepherd the Department of Radiation Oncology from its current prestigious position into the new era of technology and scientific innovations revolutionizing the science and practice of radiation therapy,” said David H. Perlmutter, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs, the George and Carol Bauer Dean of the School of Medicine, and the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Distinguished Professor. “Among her many accomplishments, Dr. Karam has led research that has challenged some long-standing paradigms in radiation therapy, and we are delighted she will be joining WashU Medicine to help push the field forward and lead the department in developing the next generation of cancer therapies.”

A native of Lebanon, Karam was the first in her family to attend college and also holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing. Her research is focused on understanding how radiation therapy changes the immune microenvironment of tumors and how that knowledge can be harnessed to develop new therapies for hard-to-treat cancers of the pancreas and head and neck. She has shown that targeting key immune cell receptors with radiation can enhance the ability of T cells to attack and kill pancreatic cancer cells. Her research also suggests that the practice of irradiating lymph nodes near the tumor in head and neck cancers may dampen the anti-tumor immune response by reducing the activation of killer T cells. Based on this observation, immunotherapy may be more effective in head and neck cancers if radiation to the lymph nodes is reduced. Her work also has led to the translation of a combination of radiation therapy and immunotherapy from animal models to early clinical trials in patients with head and neck cancer.

In addition, Karam had led multiple studies on population health services that have resulted in initiatives focused on improving patient care. She also collaborates in clinical and preclinical research with several leading industry partners, including Roche, Genentech, Amgen, Tvardi and AstraZeneca. Karam is a co-inventor on two U.S. patents and three pending patents. She is also the principal investigator on an NIH-funded training grant in lung and head and neck cancer and leads her department’s diversity, equity and inclusion program.

“It is an immense honor to be selected to lead the Department of Radiation Oncology at Washington University School of Medicine,” Karam said. “I look forward to working with the dedicated and talented physicians, researchers and trainees at WashU Medicine to deliver innovative care to patients and carry out critical research to improve outcomes for patients in the future.”

Karam also excels in teaching and mentorship, including training many junior faculty members, resident physicians, postdoctoral fellows, doctoral students, undergraduate students and research technicians. She has been recognized for her work with trainees, including with the National Educator of the Year Award from the Association of Residents in Radiation Oncology, in 2019.

Karam has an extensive educational background in science and medicine. She earned a bachelor of science degree in nursing from the American University of Beirut, where she later worked as a charge nurse in the coronary care unit. She continued her nursing training at the University of Maryland, where she earned a master’s degree in trauma and critical care nursing while also working at the multi-trauma intensive care unit at the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center.

She earned her doctoral degree in 2001 in physiology and biophysics from the University of Washington. During her doctoral training, which focused on developmental neurobiology, she also worked as a nurse in the critical care unit of Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. Karam later completed a postdoctoral fellowship in oncology at Johns Hopkins University and then attended medical school. After earning her medical degree from Georgetown University in 2008, she pursued her internship in internal medicine at Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C. For her residency in radiation oncology, she returned to Georgetown, where she served as chief resident from 2012-13.

In 2013, Karam joined the faculty of the Department of Radiation Oncology at the University of Colorado. She is the institutional principal investigator for multiple clinical trials and chairs many committees and task forces, including at NCI, the American Association for Cancer Research, the American Head and Neck Society, and the American Society for Radiation Oncology.

She also has received the Bob Bast Translational Research Grant by the V Foundation, an honor for a research project that receives the highest rating by the organization’s scientific advisory committee.

Karam will succeed Dennis Hallahan, MD, who has led the department for 15 years. Hallahan, the Elizabeth H. and James S. McDonnell III Distinguished Professor of Radiation Oncology, will continue leading his own research laboratory.

About Washington University School of Medicine

WashU Medicine is a global leader in academic medicine, including biomedical research, patient care and educational programs with 2,900 faculty. Its National Institutes of Health (NIH) research funding portfolio is the second largest among U.S. medical schools and has grown 56% in the last seven years. Together with institutional investment, WashU Medicine commits well over $1 billion annually to basic and clinical research innovation and training. Its faculty practice is consistently within the top five in the country, with more than 1,900 faculty physicians practicing at 130 locations and who are also the medical staffs of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals of BJC HealthCare. WashU Medicine has a storied history in MD/PhD training, recently dedicated $100 million to scholarships and curriculum renewal for its medical students, and is home to top-notch training programs in every medical subspecialty as well as physical therapy, occupational therapy, and audiology and communications sciences.

Julia covers medical news in genomics, cancer, cardiology, developmental biology, biochemistry & molecular biophysics, and gut microbiome research. In 2022, she won a gold award for excellence in the Robert G. Fenley Writing Awards competition. Given by the Association of American Medical Colleges, the award recognized her coverage of long COVID-19. Before joining Washington University in 2010, she was a freelance writer covering science and medicine. She has a research background with stints in labs focused on bioceramics, human motor control and tissue-engineered heart valves. She is a past Missouri Health Journalism Fellow and a current member of the National Association of Science Writers. She holds a bachelor's degree in engineering science from Iowa State University and a master's degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Minnesota.