Carter Van Waes, M.D., Ph.D., clinical director and chief of the Head and Neck Surgery Branch and Tumor Biology Section at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), will retire on June 30, 2022.
Scientists, clinicians, and colleagues honored his illustrious career at a symposium held May 13, 2022. NIDCD’s Scientific Director Lisa L. Cunningham, Ph.D., presented Dr. Van Waes with the NIDCD Career Achievement Award for his outstanding leadership and scientific accomplishments. Many of the speakers were physician-scientists who were trained by Dr. Van Waes and spoke about how his mentorship influenced their professional careers. A common theme throughout the symposium was the inspiring role he played in training and nurturing future clinician-scientists and in advancing the NIDCD clinical research program.
“Dr. Van Waes’ early and continued leadership in the NIDCD’s clinical program was instrumental in building the integrated clinical and basic research program that exists today,” said NIDCD Director Debara L. Tucci, M.D., M.S., M.B.A. “The NIDCD is extremely grateful for Dr. Van Waes’ commitment to our institute over the past 29 years. His dedication to pre-clinical studies and clinical trials has led to the development of new therapies for the treatment of head and neck cancers that affect voice and speech, and for inner ear tumors that cause hearing and balance disorders.”
Dr. Van Waes earned a bachelor’s degree from Earlham College in 1980, followed by an M.D. and a Ph.D. in the immunology of cancer from the University of Chicago. At the University of Michigan, he completed an NIH postdoctoral fellowship in molecular biology of head and neck cancer in 1990, and his residency in otolaryngology-head and neck surgery in 1993. He joined the NIDCD Division of Intramural Research in 1993 as a senior staff fellow and was promoted to acting chief of the Tumor Biology Section and acting clinical director of the NIDCD in 1995. He was selected for the permanent position as NIDCD clinical director and chief of the Head and Neck Surgery Branch in 2003.
In the Head and Neck Surgery Branch, Tumor Biology Section (HNSB, TBS), Dr. Van Waes led studies that centered on developing approaches for preventing and treating cancerous tumors that affect human communication. This basic science work built the foundation for collaborating with other NIH institutes to conduct clinical trials pioneering the use of genetic and molecular-targeted treatments and combined therapies using immunotherapies, radiation, and chemotherapy for head and neck cancers.
Dr. Van Waes credits his academic mentors and colleagues at the NIH and the many students and fellows in the clinical program for their robust contributions to collectively improving the treatment of head and neck cancers. "The most gratifying experience in my career has been to see more patients live to raise their children, work, enjoy retirement, and be able to communicate," he said.
Over the course of Dr. Van Waes’ career, his research was published in almost 200 peer-reviewed journals and cited more than 13,000 times. His work includes pioneering studies in head and neck cancer cell biology, immunology, and genomics, with some of his discoveries translating directly to clinical studies and trials.
The cumulative body of work from HNSB and other laboratories provided an understanding of key genomic drivers of signal pathway and transcription factor networks in head and neck cancers, and ways these networks work to regulate the microenvironment that tumor cells create. Outlining these pathways from a systems biology perspective gave way to understanding how these networks and pathways were interacting at a molecular level.
These studies led Dr. Van Waes to work on the Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) program, which provided him with the opportunity to illustrate how genomic alterations fit within the pathways that he and others had previously defined. Dr. Van Waes led a team of more than 50 TCGA researchers to compile the research studies on the molecular characteristics that distinguish the genomic profiles of squamous cell carcinomas from the head, neck, and other body sites. He, along with staff scientist Zhong Chen, M.D., Ph.D., now at the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR), received the American Association for Cancer Research’s Team Science Award in 2020 for their work, which is critical to the development of more effective diagnoses and targeted treatment strategies for head and neck cancers.
Dr. Van Waes’ passion for mentoring and training the next generation of scientists was a constant force throughout his career. He was instrumental in developing the NIDCD clinical program into an environment that would attract surgeon-scientists eager for further training. Dr. Van Waes’ legacy continues today with the current NIDCD Otolaryngology Surgeon-Scientist Program (OSSP), which provides opportunities for physicians to develop the skills necessary for cutting-edge, translational research on human communication processes in health and disease. He also mentored trainees in the NIH MD/PhD Partnership Training Program, the NIH Medical Scientist Training Program, and the NIH Oxford-Cambridge Scholars Program. He tutored and mentored students and fellows in the NIH Clinical Research Training Program and the NIH Medical Research Scholars Program.
Having participated in civil rights marches from the time he was in a stroller, it is not surprising that Dr. Van Waes was an early participant in developing NIDCD programs to recruit and mentor trainees from backgrounds underrepresented in biomedical research. In 1994, in collaboration with what was then known as NIH’s National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities, Dr. Van Waes and NIDCD Deputy Director Jay Moskowitz developed the NIDCD Partnership Program, which was designed to create research opportunities within the NIDCD for diverse groups of trainees. The program was initially piloted with four universities and later expanded to allow applicants from anywhere in the country. He continued to value and promote diversity in his clinical program and hopes that future initiatives will encourage more diversity in surgeon-scientist training programs.
Throughout his career, Dr. Van Waes received numerous awards for his contributions to diversity training programs, clinical care and research, and scientific advances. Past awards include the NIH Director’s Award, NIH Clinical Center Director’s Award for Excellence in Clinical Care, NIDCD Special Service Award for outstanding leadership as the Clinical Director in the establishment of a leading clinical program, and numerous awards from professional organizations for head and neck cancers and clinical research.
The NIDCD and the broader NIH community are extremely grateful for Dr. Van Waes’ outstanding leadership, expertise, and mentorship. He will continue to serve the NIH as a scientist emeritus.