Q&A with Sarcoma Researcher and Oncologist Gina D’Amato, M.D.

Dr. D’Amato offers hope for patients diagnosed with a rare and difficult disease.

Dr. Gina D'Amato

Gina D’Amato, M.D. ’98, is all about the underdog.

In her work as a professor of medicine and medical oncologist studying and treating sarcoma at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, part of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, Dr. D’Amato faces multiple challenges. There are more than 100 kinds of sarcoma, a rare cancer of the bones or soft tissues. It tends to be diagnosed late. And there’s no way to screen for it, unlike mammograms or colonoscopies for breast or colon cancer.

Despite these hurdles, Dr. D’Amato is able to offer her patients hope. She’s clinical lead of a sarcoma oncology service line made up of multidisciplinary experts with decades of experience among them. The sarcoma research community tends to be very tight-knit, Dr. D’Amato said. She often trades questions and advice with her colleagues across the country or around the world. And new immunotherapies and targeted therapies for sarcoma have come on the scene in recent years, with more being tested in clinical trials at Sylvester and elsewhere.

We recently chatted with Dr. D’Amato to find out more about her work and her approach to sarcoma care. Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

I joined Sylvester about five-and-a-half years ago, but actually, Dr. Jonathan Trent trained me remotely during my fellowship and has continued to be my amazing mentor for over 20 years. Besides taking care of patients, I’m involved with a large portfolio of clinical trials and work closely with laboratory researchers to conduct translational research.

I’m co-director of the medical school’s oncology pathway, where medical students can gain research experience, and several of them have gotten involved with sarcoma research that way. I’m also a medical advisor to several sarcoma patient advocacy groups and often involved in their patient education programs.

I was always interested in science as a young child. If my sister and I ever complained about being bored, my dad would always tell us to either go outside and play or go read the encyclopedia, and I often chose the encyclopedia.

When I was in high school, my sister was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She’s now 35 years in remission. Soon after that, I developed a benign skin condition genetically related to lymphoma. Those experiences sparked my interest in oncology and I was actually going to specialize in lymphoma during my fellowship at the Moffitt Cancer Center. But they needed someone for sarcoma at Moffitt, so I stepped up. It turns out I liked working on a rare cancer. It feels like I can really make a difference in my patients’ lives.

Not only is sarcoma rare, but there are 175 different kinds of sarcoma. You really have to treat every patient individually. We use a lot of scientific theory, keep up on all the latest research by attending conferences and reading journals and tap into our sarcoma colleagues internationally for advice.

We’re finally at the point where we’re beginning to understand the molecular processes behind each individual cancer, so I think the future is bright.
—Dr. Gina D’Amato

Our patients also tend to be younger: The average age for a sarcoma diagnosis is 55, compared to 68 among all cancers. That can be a challenge for our patients. They often have career and caregiving pressures on top of cancer treatments. And sarcoma can often be misdiagnosed because awareness is low even in the physician community.

I’m really passionate about medical education and getting involved while our future doctors are still in school so they are able to recognize the signs of sarcoma and other cancers, even if they don’t go into oncology.

I have helped supplement the Miller School of Medicine curriculum to expose medical students to other physicians besides medical oncologists who help care for cancer patients, such as surgical oncologists, orthopedic oncologists, pathologists, radiation oncologists, radiologists (including interventional) and more. I actually received an award for excellence in curriculum from the Miller School of Medicine.

I like any kind of outdoor activity, mostly running or biking. I also like cooking and playing card or board games with friends. I used to play a lot of poker, but these days, my favorite is Rummikub.

The more we understand the genetics of sarcoma, the better we can develop targeted drugs for them. At Sylvester, we’re focusing on solitary fibrous tumors, gastrointestinal stromal tumor, chondrosarcoma, chordoma and osteosarcoma. The hope is that different institutions will hone in on different specific types. We’re finally at the point where we’re beginning to understand the molecular processes behind each individual cancer, so I think the future is bright.

Tags: cancer q and a, cancer research, Dr. Gina D'Amato, sarcoma, Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center