Rush to Crush Cancer

Dr. Kurt Weiss

Surgeon. Scientist. Dot-connector.

The story of how Dr. Kurt Weiss found his purpose in life starts with a sore leg, winds through some unexpected turns and providential coincidences, and casts him in the unique role as one of very few physician-scientists searching for a cure for sarcoma—and the only one who is a former sarcoma patient.

In 1989, high school freshman Kurt Weiss experienced pain and swelling in his leg. A sports medicine doctor took X-rays and told the family to see Dr. Mark Goodman the next morning. Dr. Goodman, an orthopaedic oncologist, looked at the X-rays and told Kurt and his parents that he had osteosarcoma, or bone cancer. Additional tests showed that the cancer had spread to his lungs. Kurt immediately started chemotherapy at Children’s Hospital. Then came surgeries on his leg and his lungs.

Kurt’s lung tumors were removed, but they came back. After a second lung surgery, Kurt’s parents were told to prepare for the worst. They bought a burial plot next to Kurt’s great-grandparents and started planning his funeral mass.

Kurt’s sister was living in Allentown, PA and came across an interesting news article. “The local paper was ten pages,” recalls Dr. Weiss, “and nine of them were devoted to livestock. For some reason, there was an article about an experimental chemotherapy trial at MD Anderson Hospital in Houston. My parents called, and I was exactly the kind of patient the trial was designed for. I underwent six months of treatment, and I’ve been cancer-free since then. That’s what sparked my interest in science. I learned very young that sarcoma research saves lives. I’m alive because I participated in an experiment.”

The experience led Kurt to Notre Dame to study pre-med. It wasn’t his first time there—in high school, he’d performed with the school’s marching band at the Orange Bowl through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. At first his grades weren’t great. “I needed something impressive to put on a medical school application,” he recalls, “so I got a gig in orthopedic surgery research at Presbyterian Hospital working on the human gene therapy for rheumatoid arthritis. And I fell in love with applied science.” 

As for the clinical surgeon part of his life “As a senior at Notre Dame, I was still having surgeries on my leg. A deep infection from the original operation was still a problem. After a couple dozen more surgeries over the years, I knew I’d never be a surgeon dragging this leg around.” I told Dr. Goodman that I’d just been elected president of Notre Dame’s band, so I was going to stay on for football season, and during semester break I’d have my leg amputated. So once again, I played with the Notre Dame band at the Orange Bowl.”

After earning his degree and losing his leg, Kurt started medical school at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. In the summer of his first year, he worked on a nine-week research project alongside Dr. Kleinerman—the woman who’d invented the treatment that saved his life.

“That’s when I decided osteosarcoma research would be a part of my life” he says. “During my orthopaedic surgery residency at Pitt I was doing hand surgery, foot and ankle surgery, sports surgery, joint replacement, and orthopedic oncology—and my mentor was none other than Mark Goodman. That’s when I knew I was going to be an orthopedic cancer doctor. I did my fellowship at the University of Toronto, and by 2010 I had a family and needed a job. Dr. Freddie Fu offered me a chance to come back home and work at UPMC. That was the best thing that ever happened to me. He made a lot of things possible for me, including working with Dr. Robert Ferris to move my musculoskeletal oncology lab just a four-minute walk from UPMC Shadyside to Hillman.”

That proximity has been a game-changer for Dr. Weiss and his work. “Being near all these smart cancer people is huge,” he says. “Bumping into somebody who says, ‘I just read a paper that pertains to your research, I’ll send it to you.’ Sarcoma science is team sport. Caring for one sarcoma patient takes not just me, but medical oncology, radiation oncology, physical therapy, nursing, pharmacy, a whole army of people. At Hillman, I have access to genomics, pharmacology, bioinformatics, a biostatistician. We have everything we need here, soup-to-nuts.”  

The thing Dr. Weiss is most proud of is starting the Musculoskeletal Oncology Tumor Registry and Tissue Bank, which houses over 10,000 unique patient samples from sarcoma patients “Pretty good for diseases with an incidence of about one in a million,” he says. “I started it to study sarcoma, but I realized I was getting my hands on multiple myeloma, breast, and lung cancer that’s metastatic to the bone…so I started offering the tissues to help drive my teammates’ research. That’s our ethos here at Hillman…’what can I do to help drive your research program, to raise all the ships?’”

“I’m not a pioneer or explorer, I’m a dot-connector. I look at what other people have done and try to figure out how that ties into what I’m doing. I’d really like to figure out how metastases works. Nobody dies because of sarcoma in their arm or leg. They die because it travels to their lungs. I’d like to look at all the different kinds of sarcomas, see where the tumor started and where it finished, give that sequencing data to bioinformatics people and say ‘okay, here are the primary tumors, here's the lung metastases, what do they have in common?’ In just the past ten years, we’ve matched 70 sets of sarcoma primaries with their lung metastases. Once we figure out how they get to the lungs and what they do there, we can make the lung a better environment for immunotherapy.”

“We have a lot of work to do. I’m proud of where we are in terms of sarcoma discoveries, but there’s not a single area where we don’t have room to grow. We need the help of the community to make that happen. Pittsburgh’s a unique place. The people are so generous. Rush to Crush Cancer is a great way to engage them, get them involved. I’d love to do the ride. Of course, I’ve got to buy a bike first.”

We have a lot of work to do. I’m proud of where we are in terms of sarcoma discoveries, but there’s not a single area where we don’t have room to grow. We need the help of the community to make that happen.

Dr. Kurt Weiss