Meet Yatin Vyas, MD
Yatin Vyas, MD, is director of the division of pediatric hematology/oncology and vice chair of research in the Stead Family Department of Pediatrics. He is a National Institutes of Health-funded investigator who is internationally recognized for his studies on Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome.
How did you decide to be a doctor?
When I was a little kid, I had an incredibly inquisitive mind. I remember vividly that I always asked “why.” In seventh or eighth grade, I watched earthworms come out after the monsoons in India. They were everywhere. I was quite intrigued with how they walk because they have no legs. I noticed that one was dead, and I opened it up to learn more. I thought, “This is exactly what I want to do.”
My sister, who is two years older, is a doctor. My dad always wanted to become a doctor. He went to medical school, but financial constraints forced him to quit. He became an actuary but knew the medical business. We had medical books in our home.
In India, it’s extremely competitive to become a doctor. You have one chance. You take exams in 12th grade. If you score in the 95th percentile or higher, you can become a doctor. My friends asked me, “What if you don’t get into medical school? What will you do?” I didn’t have an answer. It was like I didn’t see anything else; I only saw that.
How did you choose your field?
In India, if you are in the top in your class [at medical school], you go into pediatrics or orthopedics. I came to the U.S. in 1993, and I was training at New York University. I wanted to become an ER doctor or a PICU [Pediatric Intensive Care Unit] doctor. I had one month of electives, and someone said, “Go to Sloan Kettering [Cancer Center].” I did, and I forgot everything else.
What about your interest in research?
When I was at Sloan Kettering, they put us in housing, and some of the top scientists were there, too. I took my daughter, who was a year old at the time, to a playroom and started talking to some of the scientists. They said, “Why do some patients die?” I told them, “Well, they have leukemia.” And they said, “No, what is happening at the molecular level?” I realized then that being a good physician was not enough. I would have to go to the lab. Science should help us. I then spent three to four years after my fellowship learning to do science.
What would you like people to know about our children’s hospital?
It’s a place where families can come to get comprehensive care for their children. We are using evidence-based medicine that informs our clinical decision-making. We are also informed by science. It’s a place people should feel comfortable coming to. We are ranked 27th nationally for cancer care [by U.S. News and World Report], ahead of many hospitals in the Midwest. People should know that we are one of the top children’s hospitals in the country.
I don’t subscribe to the opinion that we know everything. It’s not about us or about our ego. It’s about the child. I tell my colleagues, “If we get a challenging patient, even for a day, reach out to other experts.” We have email communications with colleagues around the country. Our faculty talks to other top doctors, and we harness all this in our decision-making. Parents need to know we do this, and they should feel confident and comfortable that their kids are getting the very best care.
What would you like people to know about your research?
I work on understanding proteins and pathways in the immune system to understand why some kids get cancer and why their immune system is non-functional. My hope as a scientist is to help understand these pathways at the molecular level. Two children can have the same type of cancer, but the molecular mechanisms can be very different, resulting in different treatments for each child. Our patients get a deep molecular and genetic profiling of their cancer at diagnosis and at relapse, if the cancer does indeed return. We look at the molecular profile at diagnosis and relapse to tell us which treatment could work the best.
We know that something is going on in the body that causes cancer to return. Relapses are very programmed events because the primary cancer is sending out messages to future organs. Tumors send out messages in two ways, including through the circulating tumor DNA or ctDNA. Now we are starting to do analysis of the ctDNA at different time points. If we can understand how tumors are sending the messages, we hope that we will be able to intervene and prevent relapse.
At this point, we are one of a few—if not the only—institution in the country that has embarked on studying the molecular make-up of primary cancer, metastatic cancer, and ctDNA at multiple times in the same patient. We are looking not only at the DNA make-up of the cancers but also how the RNA differ. We are very excited about what’s coming to Iowa in the coming months and years.
What attracted you to Iowa?
I had worked with Raphael Hirsch, MD, in Pittsburgh, and he recruited me. I did not know anything about Iowa. I have been amazed and pleasantly surprised with what this place has to offer—the collegiality, the open doors.
But it was University of Iowa Dance Marathon that tipped the scales [in my coming]—the concept that undergraduates dance for 24 hours and raise $2 million for pediatric cancer. I thought, “I want to be with that group.” They’re not doctors, but they have fire in their belly. I’m driven by a cause, and if I can make an impact, I want to be there. And I want to be with a group that wants to be there. I love that group. Dance Marathon makes me want to be a much better physician and scientist.
Pediatric Medical Services
Languages (in addition to English)
- Pediatric Hematology/Oncology
- MBBS, Gujarat University, Medicine
- MBBS, Gujarat University, Surgery
- MD, Gujarat University, Pediatrics
- Gujarat University Civil Hospital, Pediatrics
- New York University Medical Center, Pediatrics
- Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Pediatric Hematology/Oncology
- Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Special Clinical Fellow