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2023 Award for Achievement: Anil Sood, MD

98F–obstetrics and gynecology 

Anil Sood’s pioneering contributions to basic and translational cancer research began when he showed that short fragments of RNA can be harnessed to shut down dysfunctional cell processes. 

“I wondered: Can we use this for therapy purposes?” he says. “A lot of the existing therapies at that time couldn’t go after many targets, but with this, you can design tiny, short fragments of RNA that you can deliver into cells of interest to shut down a gene very specifically.” 

His nanoliposomal formulation for delivering therapeutic RNA fragments opened the door for a new approach to targeted therapies, some of which are in clinical testing. 

Sood has led MD Anderson Cancer Center’s ambitious Moon Shots Program for ovarian cancer research since its inception in 2012. As head of the research program, he was charged with improving patient outcomes by 30% in a five-year period. 

Portrait of Dr. Anil Sood
Dr. Anil Sood

“The concept was that those that were selected to be a part of the Moon Shots Program would do whatever it takes to have clinical impact,” he says. “For ovarian cancer, that’s not easy. We put into motion several things that we knew could have clinical impact but the field hadn’t acted on in a coordinated manner.” 

The first target was genetic testing. In the 2010s, it was understood that genetic counseling and testing could identify patients at risk for ovarian cancer earlier—increasing their chances of survival—but national testing rates were below 20%. 

Our group expanded genetic counseling and testing and then set up a web-based system where the patient could invite her family members to be aware of her results so that they could choose to get tested, and those who tested positive could then take part in screening and prevention programs,” Sood says. “We set a bold goal that within one year, we would exceed 80% of our patients getting tested. Within one year, our testing rate was more than 85%.” 

Another major front for the Moon Shots Program was amending the surgical standard of care for ovarian tumor resection. At the time, ovarian cancer was routinely first treated with attempted surgery, but complete gross resection was only possible in around one-third of cases. 

“It bothered me that we could be operating on a lot of patients that may not be benefitting from such a large surgery,” he says. 

Sood and the Moon Shots team implemented a validated scoring system, starting with a much less invasive laparoscopic assessment to visualize areas in the abdomen and pelvis. They gave each area a score.  

If the score was low, then we proceed with the surgery. If the score was high, the chance you’re going to resect all disease is close to zero, so we start with chemotherapy and then do the surgery later,” he says. “Almost a decade into having this system in place, close to 90% of the time we can now resect all visible disease in patients who are triaged for upfront surgery.” 

With extensive funding from the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Defense, among others, Sood has produced hundreds of peer-reviewed publications over the course of his career, including work on the mechanisms of high platelet counts in cancer patients and the effects of chronic stress on cancer growth and progression. This latter work has been in collaboration with Susan Lutgendorf, PhD, of the University of Iowa Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. 

"If you were to ask me, though, what I feel has been the most important accomplishment, it’s really about helping others,” he says. “At the University of Iowa, I learned from incredibly gifted clinicians about not just the mechanics of medicine, but also caring for our patients at a personal level.”