From Ecuador to Nashville to Dallas: An Early Path to a Career in Medicine for Carlos L. Arteaga, MD

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Carlos L. Arteaga, MD

Carlos L. Arteaga, MD

Carlos L. Arteaga, MD, is Director of the Harold C. Simmons Cancer Center and Associate Dean for Oncology Programs, UT Southwestern Medical Center (UTSW), Dallas. He is an expert in breast cancer who has authored more than 350 publications in the areas of oncogenes in breast tumors, targeted therapies, and biomarkers of drug action and resistance as well as led clinical trials in breast cancer. In 2009, Dr. Arteaga was awarded -ASCO’s Gianni Bonadonna Award and Lecture, which recognizes oncologists who have made outstanding accomplishments in advancing the field of breast cancer research.

A Doctor’s Destiny

Dr. Arteaga was born and reared in Guayaquil, the largest city and chief port in Ecuador. His father was a prominent physician, who Dr. Arteaga said “began brainwashing me to go into medicine as far back as when I was in elementary school. So, there weren’t a lot of career decisions to worry about.”

Dr. Arteaga explained that the educational path in Ecuador is different from that in the United States. During high school, students receive training in the humanities, essentially serving as their undergrad work. Students who matriculate to a university do so directly after graduating from high school and pursue their career path. Aspiring doctors attend medical school for 7 years; since higher education in Ecuador is government-sponsored, following graduation, students are required to do a year of public service. Dr. Arteaga completed his service in a small community hospital in a rural, economically challenged area a short distance from his home.

When I visited UTSW and Simmons, I was so impressed by the institutional commitment to cancer science and clinical research and care.
— Carlos L. Arteaga, MD

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“I received my medical degree from the Facultad de Ciencias Médicas in 1980,” he shared. “My dad was the Dean of the school, and his connections provided me [as well as other students there] with many opportunities. For example, a number of his students had left home to train in the United States and then returned to Ecuador. Some made influential contacts. I had the opportunity to meet some very interesting people. One who comes to mind was the Nobel Laureate John Murray, MD, who performed the first successful kidney transplant in 1954. Dr. Murray shared the Nobel Prize [in Physiology or Medicine in 1990] with E. Donnall Thomas, MD, for discoveries in organ and cell transplantation. I was Dr. Murray’s attaché and translator for the lectures he gave in Ecuador.”

Dr. Arteaga continued: “Dr. Murray helped me secure a place as a visiting student at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston (later Brigham and Women’s Hospital). That realized my early wish: to train as a physician in the United States. So, in 1980, I took all of the requisite equivalency tests, the boards, and certifications and went to Emory University in Atlanta, where I did my internship and residency. As a third-year medical resident, even though I’d already joined a cardiology residency, I was rounding in the cancer ward in Grady Hospital, the main teaching hospital in the Emory University Residency Program. That experience with patients and my oncology attending, who combined such impressive clinical and science knowledge with empathy, made me fall in love with oncology.”

A Fellowship With a Giant in Cancer

After completing his residency at Emory University, Dr. Arteaga performed his fellowship in medical oncology and hematology at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UT). “When I got to UT, I immediately clicked with Dr. Bill McGuire, who was Chief of the Medical Oncology Division. I was actually late in applying for the fellowship, and Bill helped me get in. He was the person who coined the term translational research in breast cancer. His research played a major role in introducing estrogen receptor assays on breast tumors as a way to make treatment decisions.”

During his fellowship, Dr. Arteaga had an opportunity to work in a robust program with colleagues who combined clinical care, clinical and laboratory research, grant funding, and publishing peer--reviewed papers. “It was just too cool to pass up on,” he commented. “I tried to emulate physician-researchers like Kent Osborne, Bill McGuire, and Dan Von Hoff. I was able to publish a few papers and received some early grants, which really helped my career. Then, in 1989, I took a position as Assistant Professor of Medicine at Vanderbilt University and stayed there for 28 years,” said Dr. Arteaga.

Opportunity to Direct Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2017, Dr. Arteaga was offered the opportunity to become Director of the Harold C. Simmons Cancer Center. “I’d known about Simmons for a while. In fact, my former Head of Oncology at Vanderbilt, David Johnson, had taken the position of Chair of Medicine there. I also knew a lot of people at the institution, which had a top-notch reputation. When I visited UTSW and Simmons, I was so impressed by the institutional commitment to cancer science and clinical research and care. There was tremendous potential for growth, given the access to North Texas and Dallas. It took several visits before making a final decision, but by the second visit, I already knew I [would take the position].”

Along with myriad administrative duties, Dr. Arteaga supervises a community outreach program and oversees the center’s translational research programs and allocation of space for research and clinical care. “We are the only comprehensive cancer center in North Texas, and our reach includes many affiliates, with more coming up with the expansion of our clinical enterprise. I do a fair amount of networking to bring clinical trials to the center. And, basically, my role is to be Advocate-in-Chief of cancer science at UTSW, and together with the Center’s leadership, we interview, co-recruit, and recruit every single cancer-focused faculty to the institution. So, every day here is full and very rewarding,” said Dr. Arteaga.

Professional Awards

During his career, Dr. Arteaga has received several awards, including the American Association for Cancer Research’s (AACR’s) Richard & Hinda Rosenthal Award, the American Cancer Society’s Clinical Research Professor Award, ASCO’s Gianni Bonadonna Award, Susan G. Komen Foundation’s Brinker Award, the Prize for Scientific Excellence in Medicine from the American-Italian Cancer Foundation, and the Clinical Investigator Award from the Department of Veterans Affairs. In 2015, he served as President of the AACR, the largest cancer research organization in the world.

Asked how a super-busy cancer center director unwinds, Dr. Arteaga replied: “I try to exercise, cycle, and read lots of nonfiction. Traveling, also, but obviously [due to the COVID-19 pandemic] that’s been put on hold for now.” 

DISCLOSURE: Dr. Arteaga holds stock or other ownership interests in Provista Diagnostics and Y-Trap Inc; serves or has served as a consultant or advisor to Athenex, Clovis Oncology, Daiichi Sankyo, G1 Therapeutics, H3 Biomedicine, Immunomedics, Lilly, Merck, Novartis, Origimed, Petra Pharma, Puma Biotechnology, Radius Health, Sanofi, Symphogen, Taiho Pharmaceutical, and Third Rock Ventures; and receives or has received research funding from Bayer, Lilly, Pfizer, Puma Biotechnology, Radius Health, and Takeda.