Expert Spotlight: Dr. Paul Bunn

spotlights Jan 15, 2020

Dr. Paul Bunn is a Distinguished Professor and James Dudley endowed chair of lung cancer research at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. His lab conducts studies on the development of novel growth factor inhibitors for chemoprevention and the treatment of lung cancer. Dr. Bunn is involved in clinical trials of novel molecular therapies and immunotherapies for lung cancer, and he's the former president of ASCO and IASLC.


Dr. Paul Bunn has shaped a lasting legacy in the field of oncology, and has seen exciting developments in nearly every aspect of the discipline: "there have been incredible advances in treating lung cancer patients using molecular and immunotherapies. The clinical trials I've worked on, and developing pre-clinical data, have both been so rewarding." Recently it was revealed the U.S. death rate for cancer dropped a staggering 2.2% between 2016 and 2017, according to the American Cancer Society.

Some of the more towering developments have come in the form of the National Cancer Act in 1971, which established the NCI as part of Nixon's forward strategy for the "war on cancer." Dr. Bunn additionally cites SPORE grants (Specialized Programs of Research Excellence), which fund translational research, as a major driver of change in oncology clinics and care. The government has continuously been the largest supporter of cancer research in the US through the NCI.

Dr. Bunn's father was himself a physician. After graduation from Amherst College, Dr. Bunn attended Cornell Univ. Medical College, where he obtained his MD degree in 1971. At Cornell, his mentors, Drs. Walter Riker and Richard Silver, provided mentoring for his research and acceptance into the Medicine Branch of the NCI. This fellowship, which occurred after internship and residency at UCSF, was in the US Public Health Service; it fulfilled military obligation to avoid drafting into the military for Vietnam duty.

After completing his medical Oncology fellowship at the Medicine branch of the NCI under Dr. Vincent DeVita, he worked under Dr. John Minna at the NCI Veterans Administration and Navy Medical Oncology branches from 1975-1984. In 1984-1994 he was the head of the Division of Medical Oncology at the Univ. of Colorado School of Medicine. In 1988, Dr. Bunn launched the NCI‚Äźdesignated University of Colorado (CU) Cancer Center, and served as its director until 2009, building and recruiting the only NCI-designated consortium comprehensive cancer center in Colorado from the ground up. He additionally served as president of the IASLC from 1994 to 1997 and President of ASCO from 2002 to 2003.

There have been many challenges along the way: from obtaining grants while on a busy patient care schedule, to picking the right journal for publishing manuscripts, and finding more accurate models and pre clinical data to inform future research and trial decisions. One thing that doesn't change, Dr. Bunn admits, "there are no shortcuts in medicine."

But for those with the grit and determination to stick out a career in oncology, the effort is worth it. "If you want to be involved in both research and patient care," Dr. Bunn assures, "oncology is a great choice."

The overall goal is, of course, to cure more and more patients of their cancer. But that takes long term follow-up, and trials take longer than you think to complete. Those prolonged processes, however, bear fruitful results. "I enjoy taking care of my patients in the meantime, and I'm really looking forward to neoadjuvant and adjuvant molecular and immunotherapy in early stage lung cancer patients, where the potential for higher cure rates resides. Immunotherapy is such a complicated and new area, and I can't wait to see where the novel approaches take us."

The role and influence of technology in medicine also sparks an interest for Dr. Bunn. "Communication is so much different nowadays: it's easier for patients and physicians to have questions answered, almost in real time. That's why I think theMednet is a step in the right direction. Any organization that fosters communication for me and for places like IASLC and ASCO is important."

For Dr. Bunn's New Year's resolution, he quotes a conversation between Clint Eastwood and Toby Keith in 2018: "don't let the old man in." He goes on to opine that variety is the spice of life, and that the best part of getting older, "is getting to see all my kids and grandkids, and my patients, too!"  

Brendan Bense

Brendan is an Editorial Assistant at theMednet, and an author for theMednet Blog. He's a Philly native, with a passion for technology, creative writing, and travel.