Curing Cancer With A Surgeon’s Knife
A micrographic surgeon, Gloria Xu, MD, PhD, is building a library of skin cancer samples that can be used by fellow researchers to seek out innovative therapies and medicines. Micrographic or “Mohs” surgery is a procedure developed by UW-Madison surgeon Dr. Frederic Mohs in which progressively smaller concentric incisions are made in the skin to remove non-melanoma skin cancers. The precision of this technique not only minimizes damage to healthy tissue and maximizes cure rates, it also offers an ideal opportunity for Dr. Xu to collect samples of non-melanoma skin cancer for research.
One of Dr. Xu’s current projects examines the genome sequences of basal cell cancer samples to determine whether genetic mutations involved in basal cell nervus syndrome, a type of genetic skin cancer, accumulate as patients age. Another, a collaboration with Dr. Paul Lambert from the Department of Human Oncology, investigates the effects of human papillomavirus (HPV) on the formation of squamous cell cancer in organ transplant patients.
As a clinician and scientist, Dr. Xu observes firsthand the current limits of dermatology. Her observations push her to question the current standards of patient care and to identify practical questions to investigate. “When I do pursue a research project, I want to pursue one that impacts clinical care.” Dr. Xu has led two important initiatives to improve melanoma care: in 2011, she redefined the “Slow Mohs” technique to remove thin melanoma in the highly sensitive head and neck areas; in 2014, she spearheaded the development of the UW Melanoma Tumor Board.
Patient participation is vital to Dr. Xu’s success in research. “As a busy surgeon, I am constantly surrounded by very interesting skin cancer cases, and hence I make it a priority to talk to my patients and collect their tissue samples to further our investigations. They become intrinsically linked to discovery of new treatments. I’ve never had any patients say no to participating; they are excited that they are doing something for the next generation.”
Treating patients like family
Dr. Xu attributes much of her success in the clinic and procedure room to the mindset she carries with her every day. “I think of patients as if they were my family,” Dr. Xu explains. “When one of my children had an illness, I really wanted the best care for my kid. I wanted regular follow-up. All of what I request from my providers, I try to give to my patients.”
This empathetic approach keeps Dr. Xu conscious of how patients may be feeling, whether self-conscious about their appearance, nervous about a surgery, or fearful of cancer. “I don’t want my patients to lose sleep over something that I can help them with,” Dr. Xu emphasizes. “If there is a limit to what I can give, it is due to the limits of the medical science.”
For Dr. Xu, her work as an excellent clinician and research collaborator go hand-in-hand. “We are part of a great university community,” she concludes. “I feel very fortunate to be a part of it.”
From Fellow to Fellowship Director
It was during her post-medical school internship that Dr. Xu discovered she enjoyed the surgical aspects of cutaneous oncology. Multiple leading physicians complimented her steady and dexterous hands during surgery, and she ultimately decided to specialize as a Mohs micrographic surgeon. In 2010, Dr. Xu completed her specialty training at the prestigious UW Dermatology Mohs Fellowship (now the Micrographic Surgery and Dermatologic Oncology Fellowship), where she became Fellowship Director in 2020.
Dr. Xu views her Director role as a collaboration with her two Mohs colleagues to develop a positive culture for the fellows. A year is a tight window for fellows to get involved in research, education, and surgery, but fellows are willing to jump right in. “Everyone works to create a climate where new people feel welcomed, loved, and needed. I love working with my fellow. It is always an essential part of patient care in our Mohs program.”
Active Clinical Trials
A Biomarker Evaluation Trial of 9cUAB30 in Renal Transplant Recipients at High Risk for Non-melanoma Skin Cancer
Revealing Accumulative Gene Mutations in Basal Cell Nevus Syndrome to Achieve Pathway-specific Therapies
Dr. Xu On…
Customer service. It’s really cliché, but I know that as a patient you want a capable doctor who cares, who has a follow-through plan; patients want to be able to have a 100% certainty that they will get what they need from their doctor.
It excites me! I love working with my fellow, residents and occasionally medical students; it’s an essential part of patient care in our Mohs program. We have a lot of new faces in our staffing pool, regardless the culture stays forever.
Her Favorite Place in Madison
The Union Terrace is really a beautiful highlight of our campus. Our family usually visits many times every summer. It is a reminder that you are a part of this great University community: so many great doctors, great researchers, and great students.
Her Favorite Memory from Medical School
Meeting my husband and dating him. We started dating as first year medical students. He is now a computer guy, in computer science, but back then we dated for 4.5 years in our 5-year program. We’ve been married 24 years now. It makes me feel old!
UW Health West Clinic (451 Junction Rd.)