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Schwarz named Danforth WashU Physician-Scientist Scholar

Innovative radiation oncologist noted for research to develop treatments for deadly gynecologic cancers, heart conditions

by Julia Evangelou StraitMarch 4, 2024

Matt Miller

Julie K. Schwarz, MD, PhD, a highly regarded radiation oncologist known for her innovative mindset in treating patients and leading research to develop new treatments for deadly gynecologic cancers and heart conditions, has been named a William H. Danforth Washington University Physician Scholar.

Established in 2022, the Physician-Scientist Investigators Initiative supports outstanding physician-scientists whose pioneering work already has made transformational contributions to their respective fields. Developing and nurturing the careers of physician-scientists are part of Washington University’s DNA. Physician-scientists — because of their work in the clinic and their extensive research training — frequently are at the forefront of solving complex medical problems, opening the door to new approaches to diagnosing and treating disease.

Schwarz’s expertise in treating patients with gynecologic cancers at Siteman Cancer Center has greatly informed the directions of her research. Siteman, based at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine, is a major referral center for patients with gynecologic cancers.

Her research is focused on developing better treatments for cervical cancer and other gynecologic tumors. Standard therapies for these cancers have not changed substantially in decades. Schwarz is taking a unique approach in developing ways to attack the metabolism of these tumors, a strategy that deprives cancer of its fuel supply, which is required for growth. Such fuel-starved tumors have been shown to be more susceptible to radiation and chemotherapy.

Schwarz and her colleagues are focused on combining the most advanced radiation therapy with the latest technologies available to improve cancer treatment, including immunotherapies, investigational metabolic therapies, advanced imaging and bioinformatics. Her research helped establish the standard use of a type of PET scan to monitor patients’ responses to treatment for cervical cancer. Visualizing tumors and monitoring their spread with advanced functional imaging techniques, especially early in the disease process, can not only help guide treatment decisions, but suggest new areas for research designed to improve outcomes for patients with treatment resistant tumors.

“We are thrilled to recognize Dr. Julie Schwarz’s outstanding innovations and to support her research with this appointment as a prestigious Danforth scholar,” 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. “She is leading the field in developing new strategies to attack tumor metabolism, an exciting emerging area in cancer therapy. And her national role in research to identify — on a single-cell level — the effects of radiation on the biology, metabolism and immunology of tumors is poised to fundamentally guide the design and clinical evaluation of the next generation of radiation therapies for cancer.”

The Physician-Scientist Investigators Initiative focuses on MD and MD/PhD researchers at the associate or full professor rank with an established track record of exceptional research contributions and funding. The School of Medicine has committed $40 million through 2032 to be used as part of highly competitive packages to support faculty. With seed funding from this commitment, the school’s clinical departments are aiming to attract and retain the most talented physician-scientists in the U.S. and abroad.

Schwarz co-leads Washington University’s new MicroEnvironment and Tumor Effects of Radiotherapy Center (METEOR), one of a select group of five radiation oncology centers nationwide that are funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and tasked with better understanding the biologic effects of radiation therapy in cancer treatment. Despite radiation’s long use in cancer therapy, little is known about how it changes cancer cells and the surrounding tissue at a genetic and molecular level. Schwarz aims to harness the massive quantities of data that will be gathered through the center’s research to identify possible treatment targets and design future clinical trials based on a new understanding of how cancer cells communicate with their nearby immune cells and how these interactions are changing in response to chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

“Understanding the tumor’s immunobiology is critical for developing therapies for cancers that remain resistant even to our most advanced treatment strategies,” said Timothy J. Eberlein, MD, the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Distinguished Professor, senior associate dean for cancer programs at the School of Medicine, and director of Siteman Cancer Center. “Dr. Schwarz’s work on tumor immunology, the microenvironment and tumor metabolism is leading the field in identifying novel ways to attack tumors. We are extremely pleased that the Danforth scholar program will help advance her work in these exciting areas.”

Beyond cancer research, Schwarz has been part of a visionary team examining the benefits of radiation therapy to the heart when used as part of an innovative strategy — first developed by cardiologists and radiation oncologists at Washington University — to treat ventricular tachycardia, a life-threatening abnormal heart rhythm. The novel strategy is being investigated in clinical trials in ventricular tachycardia patients who are not eligible for standard treatment options. She also is a collaborator on related research exploring whether radiation therapy could be used to treat inflammatory forms of heart failure, for which there are no treatments.

“Washington University nurtures a thriving community of physician-scientists who push and move the boundaries of what we’re able to achieve in health care,” said Wayne M. Yokoyama, MD, director of the Division of Physician-Scientists, the Sam J. Levin and Audrey Loew Levin Professor of Arthritis Research, and an associate dean. “In addition to her already impressive body of research, Dr. Schwarz is part of a unique collaboration between radiation oncologists and cardiologists that may have an impact on patient care. We look forward to seeing what’s next for her work with this support from the Danforth scholars program.”

Schwarz also is director of the Department of Radiation Oncology’s Cancer Biology Division and the department’s vice chair for research. Research in her laboratory is supported by several NIH grants.

“Dr. Schwarz is a national leader in the fields of gynecologic oncology and radiation biology, leading the way in revealing new insights into cervical cancer and other cancers so that she can provide better care for patients,” said Dennis E. Hallahan, MD, the Elizabeth H. and James S. McDonnell III Distinguished Professor of Medicine and head of the Department of Radiation Oncology. “She is an effective leader and is highly collaborative, as demonstrated by her research in cancer immunology and in cardiac irradiation for arrhythmias and heart failure. I am delighted that her work is being recognized and supported through this program.”

Schwarz earned a bachelor’s degree in biology magna cum laude from Duke University in 1995. Through Washington University’s Medical Scientist Training Program, she earned her medical degree and a doctorate in cell and molecular biology in 2004. After an internship and residency at Washington University and Barnes-Jewish Hospital, she joined the Department of Radiation Oncology faculty in 2009.

Schwarz is past president of the Radiation Research Society, has held numerous leadership and mentorship positions within the American Association for Cancer Research and is also an elected member of the American Society for Clinical Investigation.

The Danforth scholar program honors William H. Danforth, MD, Washington University’s 13th chancellor, who led the university from 1971 to 1995. Danforth earned his medical degree from Harvard Medical School and later completed a residency in medicine at what is now Barnes-Jewish Hospital, and another in pediatrics at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. He went on to serve as a physician in the Navy for two years during the Korean War. He joined the School of Medicine faculty as a cardiologist in 1957 and eventually was named vice chancellor for medical affairs and then chancellor of Washington University. Notably, Danforth also conducted research in the laboratory of Carl and Gerty Cori, two of Washington University’s most celebrated Nobel laureates.

“It is a tremendous honor to be named a Danforth Physician-Scientist Scholar,” Schwarz said. “It is an exciting time for the field of radiation oncology and wonderful to have such key support for continuing our investigations into the biology and metabolism of irradiated tumors and tissues. This is exciting new territory for the development of novel therapeutics and treatment combinations that may be used in the future to improve outcomes for our patients.”

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.