Innovators and Advocates: Three City of Hope Physicians Honored

July 23, 2018 | by Michael Easterling

Payson Investitures at City of Hope Left to right: Dr. Norman Payson, Melinda Payson, their daughter Devon Wilson and grandson Ryder Wilson; Jeffrey Weitzel, M.D., Vijay Trisal, M.D., Dr. Trisal’s mother, Mohini; and John Wing-Chung Chan, M.D.

Though they have dramatically different backgrounds, they share a devotion to helping people and saving lives — and now they share in the generosity of longtime City of Hope philanthropists Norman and Melinda Payson.
 
“City of Hope is extremely grateful for the Paysons’ support of our vision to bring tomorrow’s cancer and diabetes discoveries to the people who need them today,” said Robert W. Stone, City of Hope president and chief executive officer. “Their commitment inspires us and their generosity propels us forward.”
 
Norman Payson, M.D., served on City of Hope’s board of directors beginning in 2004 and served as chair from 2014 to 2016. He currently sits on the board as past immediate chair. A highly respected physician and health care leader, Payson has more than 30 years of experience building and directing health care companies during times of growth and change. Payson is a former chief executive officer of Oxford Health Plans Inc. and Healthsource Inc., and was chairman and chief executive officer of Apria Healthcare Group Inc. until 2012.
 
In addition to the three professorships, the Paysons have named the Graduate Studies Center at City of Hope and endowed a graduate student fellowship.
 
City of Hope Chief Medical Officer Vijay Trisal, M.D.John Wing-Chung Chan, M.D., co-leader of the Hematologic Malignancies Program at City of Hope’s comprehensive cancer center; and Jeffrey Weitzel, M.D., director of the Division of Clinical Cancer Genomics were recently invested through gifts made from the Payson family. Trisal adds the Dr. Norman & Melinda Payson Professor in Medicine to his list of titles.

VIJAY TRISAL, M.D.

“Let me tell you what my job means to me,” Trisal said of his new role as chief medical officer, a position he assumed Jan. 1. “It means I am charged with making sure patients coming to City of Hope have all obstacles taken away — anything that can come between getting good care and treatment and our patients. It’s also my job to make sure providers — physicians, physician assistants and so on — do not get bogged down in the process of medicine, and we don’t lose the ‘special sauce’ that makes us who we are. And lastly, I have a responsibility to expand the work we do outside of Duarte. People ask me, ‘Who is your competition?’ and I say, ‘We don’t have competition. We have collaborations.’"
 
As part of his investiture, Trisal presented a slideshow called, “Finding My Purpose and My Home,” to a standing room-only crowd on City of Hope's main campus.
 
Trisal first came to City of Hope in 2002 as a fellow in surgical oncology. Getting here was a long, winding, but ultimately rewarding path, he said, one that began on the other side of the world. Trisal grew up in the foothills of the Himalayas in the Kashmir Valley. It was an area that did not have running water or electricity, and where children were not given names until they had reached age 1, because conditions and access to health care were so poor in the village.
 
“At one year, it was a double celebration,” Trisal said. “A birthday, and living to one year.”
 
He credits his parents for keeping him healthy and instilling in him a solid work ethic and a compassion for all people.
 
His father was a middle school teacher and one of 14 children, only seven of whom survived to adulthood. His mother has no formal education, but he calls her “one of the smartest people I’ve ever met.”

During his youth, the area of the Kashmir was politically and socially volatile. When his father was identified as being on a “hit list” for assassination, Trisal and his family fled in the middle of the night inside an oil tanker that would take them briefly to the slums of New Delhi, India. For six months, Trisal sold key chains on the streets and joined a theatre group. His parents encouraged him to pursue a career in medicine, a decision that would bring him west.
 
He eventually made his way to America, with only $500 to go toward tuition at Wayne State University in Michigan, where he had been accepted into graduate school. It was there that he met “his best friend,” his wife, Nila, the mother of his three sons.
 
When it came time to do a surgical residency, Trisal knew City of Hope was where he wanted to be. “Of all the places I interviewed,” he said, “the camaraderie at City of Hope I found nowhere else.” He also found a mentor and friend in I. Benjamin Paz, M.D., executive vice chair and clinical professor in the Department of Surgery. “Ben and I have an amazing relationship,” Trisal said. “We are so similar. He is my brother, an uncle to my children. In my first few days here at City of Hope, I knew this was home for me.”

JOHN WING-CHUNG CHAN, M.D.

Chan came to City of Hope in 2013 already an internationally respected molecular pathologist. Following his investiture, where he presented his “Four Decade Journey through Medicine,” Chan is now the Norman & Melinda Payson Professor in Hematologic Cancers. He joined City of Hope as part of the establishment of the Hematologic Malignancies and Stem Cell Transplantation Institute, recruited for his groundbreaking research when he was the co-director of the Center for Leukemia and Lymphoma Research at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
 
Born and raised in Hong Kong when it was still a British colony, Chan made the journey west and continued his academic career at the University of Chicago to broaden his training and experience.
 
He accepted a residency program there to work with researcher and renown hematopathologist Henry Rappaport, M.D., whom he discovered had just left Chicago and ironically, came to City of Hope (Rappaport died at 90 in 2003). During his residency Chan learned and worked on hybridoma technology, which is a method for producing a large variety of specific antibodies against almost any molecules of choice. Pioneered by researchers Cesar Milstein and George Kohler, Chan said this technology has had a tremendous impact on research and treatment. Drs. Milstein and Kohler would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology.
 
Chan defined a form of chronic lymphoproliferative disorder affecting either cytotoxic T cells or NK cells associated with neutropenia when he was a junior faculty member at Emory University School of Medicine. He was later recruited to be a professor of pathology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. One of his research projects involved the use of single cell assays in the early 1990s to demonstrate the cell of origin of Hodgkin lymphoma and the clonal nature of the neoplastic cells.
 
Today, Chan focuses his study on the genomics of lymphoma to understand the causes of the tumor and seeks out new approaches to treat the disease more effectively and with less toxicity. His research has contributed significantly in improving the understanding of the pathogenesis of lymphoma as well as its molecular classification. He has also been successful in identifying promising targets for therapeutic intervention.
 
Significant areas of his current research, he said, are made possible through the funding that the Payson family has provided. “The backing of the Payson family has provided essential support for the work we’re doing in my lab,” he said at the investiture ceremony. “A very special thanks to them.”

JEFFREY WEITZEL, M.D.

Weitzel is the Dr. Norman & Melinda Payson Professor in Medical Oncology. At his investiture, he presented on “Genetics, Genomics and Cancer Risk Assessment in Precision Medicine.”

“I always wanted to be a scientist,” he said. “As a sixth grade student, I did a science fair project and I loved to sit and look at the red cells under the microscope and draw pictures of what I’d seen.”
 
His career in medicine began in bone marrow transplantation, but he found himself drawn more and more to genetics. He was instrumental in starting the Division of Clinical Cancer Care Genomics here at City of Hope in 1996. “At the time, people were telling us not to put ‘genetics’ in the title, because everyone’s scared of genetics. So we didn’t. But in reality, we are marshalling more than just genetics. We are focusing clearly on patient care, quality of care that is patient-centered, and on research and education to support that.” He credits friends and colleagues Kathleen Blazer, Ed.D., M.S., L.C.G.C., associate director of the Cancer Genomics Education Program, staff scientist Josef Herzog and clinical research administrator Sharon Sand for their long years of collaboration.
 
Weitzel said he is very proud of the progress he and his team have made. They created a course on personalized genetics for precision medicine that has become an industry model. To date, they have trained more than 800 people from all over the world. Going forward, Weitzel said he plans to expand his lab’s genomic epidemiology research, continue to develop a cancer prevention trial portfolio, explore more early detection research opportunities and continue training in the cancer genomics program.
 
“We are making an impact, something we’re very pleased about,” he said. “What good is science if we don’t change how we care for people?”
 
The 22 years he has spent here has been career-defining and career rewarding, Weitzel said. “City of Hope is my family. When I came here, people took a gamble on me. I continue to be humbled by the work happening here on a daily basis.
 
****

Sign up to receive the latest updates on City of Hope news, medical breakthroughs, and prevention tips straight to your email inbox!

Back To Top

Search Blogs