The VOICE of UPMC Shadyside Winter 2022–2023

New People, New Ideas

How Drs. Taofeek K. Owonikoko and Brian Zuckerbraun, Each in His Own Way, are Advancing Patient Care and Big, New Ideas

“An amazing addition”

“I want to put big, new ideas into practice for patients,” says Taofeek K. Owonikoko, MD, PhD. And now he is in the right place to do just that.

Appointed in 2021 after an extensive national search, Dr. Owonikoko is chief of the Division of Hematology/Oncology; Stanley M. Marks–OHA Endowed Chair in the Department of Medicine, University of Pittsburgh; and associate director for Translational Research and co-leader of Cancer Therapeutics at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. Co-author of more than 220 publications, the Nigerian-born physician-scientist, a lung cancer specialist, is also a leader in national organizations and societies.

Sandra Rader, president of UPMC Shadyside, describes him as “an amazing addition.” 

“We have to be the next frontier”

Dr. Owonikoko is actually no stranger to Pittsburgh. He completed his hematology/oncology fellowship training at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in 2008 before accepting a position at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University in Atlanta. His two younger children were born here. 

Now, he returns to advance cancer care by translating promising laboratory findings into clinical trials in collaboration with academic and industry partners.

As he explains, “Our goal is to move cancer care forward by bringing innovative trials to Pittsburgh and to UPMC Shadyside, where we do all of our trials and most of our research. There is no reason why a physician in, say, Alabama would send their patient to Pittsburgh just to get a treatment they can get there or Seattle or wherever. We have to be the next frontier for cancer care.”

One of the newest of these trials — and the first of its type in the world — “is what we call liquid radiation treatment,” Dr. Owonikoko says. “We have partnered with a European company to help develop this therapy, an infusion of radiation particles that can then bind to and kill cancer cells. The technology involves a new, safer way of designing the radiation carrier molecule so it doesn’t stay in the body for too long. This construct is the first time in the world that this will be done.”

Just as important to Dr. Owonikoko is a “low-tech, high-impact” trial using Lipitor, a commonly used medicine for cholesterol, to prevent or minimize hearing loss in some patients who receive some types of widely used chemotherapy, such as cisplatin. 

“A recent, small study at the National Institutes of Health showed that Lipitor can actually reduce the risk of somebody developing hearing loss when they go on this chemotherapy,” Dr. Owonikoko says. “We hope to deploy such a trial across all our networks. If it works, if we actually show that this is something that can improve a patient’s quality of life, that will have worldwide impact.”

Dr. Owonikoko also hopes to involve more people of color with clinical cancer trials. “Among patients with lung cancer,” he says, “Black patients are below 4 percent of those in clinical trials. This underrepresentation perpetuates health care outcome inequality.” 

“My family and I are happy to be back in Pittsburgh,” Dr. Owonikoko says. “It feels as if we are coming home to reconnect with old friends.”

We hope to deploy such a trial across all our networks. If it works, if we actually show that this is something that can improve a patient’s quality of life, that will have worldwide impact.
- Taofeek K. Owonikoko, MD, PhD

Quality amid crisis 

“I am passionate about how important it is to serve the people who live in our community and our region,” comments Brian S. Zuckerbraun, MD, FACS. “We are an incredible resource for patients who need complex care that can’t be offered anywhere else.”

One of the premier surgeons at UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh, Dr. Zuckerbraun is associate executive vice chair for Clinical Services and chief of the Division of General Surgery. He is a member of the vaunted Association of American Physicians (AAP) and American Society for Clinical Investigation (ASCI) — as well as a scientist whose lab primarily studies acute inflammatory response following injury.

And he is now the first-ever vice president of Quality at Shadyside and Presbyterian Hospitals. 

“We are now in one of the biggest challenges that modern health care has seen, with the nationwide COVID-19–related staffing crisis,” he states. “Improving quality amidst that crisis is a challenge. But it’s also an opportunity to really think differently about the way we’ve been doing things. I think it is going to push us to do that better than we ever have before.”

What is quality?

Dr. Zuckerbraun, a Shadyside resident who enjoys walking to work, explains that the National Academy of Medicine defines quality as “the degree to which health services for individuals and populations increase the likelihood of desired health outcomes and are consistent with current professional knowledge.” 

“Quality improvement is a crucial issue in health care,” he states. “It includes efforts to standardize knowledge, education, training, technology, costs, culture, leadership, and physical capital. The aim is to reduce variation, achieve predictable results, and improve outcomes for patients and health care systems. 

“My goal is to make sure our people have the tools and the information they need to not only provide excellent care but also to discover ways we can improve on our delivery of care,” Dr. Zuckerbraun says. “In order to do that, like scientists, we rely on reliable, timely data in order to measure and track progress of any effort that we’re putting forward.”

“My goal is to make sure our people have the tools and the information they need to not only provide excellent care but also to discover ways we can improve on our delivery of care.”
- Brian S. Zuckerbraun, MD, FACS

Quality as a science at Shadyside

He also has been impressed by the surprisingly long and innovative experience of quality improvement at UPMC Shadyside, going back to the 1990s. For instance, he has found “an incredible resource and mentor” in Tamra Minnier, MSN, RN, FACHE, FAAN, UPMC’s senior vice president of the Health Services Division and its chief quality officer and operational excellence officer. She also oversees UPMC’s Wolff Center, where specialists lead quality-improvement efforts across the health system, and The Beckwith Institute, a foundation supporting innovation in care delivery.

A former vice president of Patient Care at UPMC Shadyside, Ms. Minnier and other Shadyside nurse leaders were on the ground floor of the quality movement in the United States. They were supported in these efforts by Shadyside Hospital trustees G. Nicholas Beckwith III (chair of UPMC’s board from 2002 to 2022) and the late Donald D. Wolff Jr.

Mr. Wolff “focused the management team on quality,” Mr. Beckwith said when Mr. Wolff died in 2008. “He was ahead of his time — he took something diffuse, undervalued, underinformed, and undernourished, and made it a science.”

“I’ve really come to appreciate this long history of community engagement that makes UPMC Shadyside so special,” Dr. Zuckerbraun says. “The dedication of community leaders who have invested themselves in this hospital to make their city better is unique,” he comments. “I am happy to see this relationship with stakeholders continue through the Shadyside Hospital Foundation, which supports two innovation improvement specialists. 

“The pride that people take in Shadyside is inspiring to me. I look forward to facilitating and engaging the experts here to solve problems. I’m looking to them to show us where the greatest opportunities are, then to leverage our considerable expertise to improve quality care.”