The Life Saver

Rutgers alumnus David E. Schuller has been inducted into the Rutgers Hall of Distinguished Alumni for his pioneering cancer research that improved treatment techniques and quality of life for patients. Schuller, an oncologist, reached his breakthrough in treating cancer of the head and neck by combining radiation with chemotherapy, doubling the survival rate to 75 percent.

In his 40-year medical career, David E. Schuller has seen the diseases collectively known as cancer go from uniformly fatal to highly controllable and often curable. As a world-class oncologist, he’s helped make those gains possible. Schuller RC’66, a member of the medical school faculty at The Ohio State University since 1976, has put his stamp on cancer treatment by developing novel approaches to treating malignancies of the head and neck that increase survival rates and offer patients a better quality of life. He has co-chaired the National Cancer Institute’s head and neck cancer committee for most of the past 25 years and has led or been part of many major treatment advances.

A signature breakthrough occurred decades ago when Schuller began investigating whether radiation combined with chemotherapy could deliver a one-two punch to nasopharyngeal carcinoma, an oft-seen throat cancer that afflicts mostly Asians and is the second-most common of all malignancies. His research proved correct, as borne out by clinical trials, and the new approach doubled survival, to about 75 percent, and has become the standard of care for that cancer.

My Rutgers education provided the foundation for me to do what I’ve been doing for the past 40 years.

David Schuller, renowned oncologist and Rutgers Hall of Distinguished Alumni inductee

Schuller says he knew he wanted to be a doctor when he came east to Rutgers from Cleveland in 1962, choosing Rutgers, in part, because of its superb reputation for placing premed students in medical schools. “My Rutgers education provided the foundation for me to do what I’ve been doing for the past 40 years,” he says. “It would not have been possible without an excellent foundation.” Being a member of the university’s 200th graduating class has always held significance as well.

Schuller, whose name regularly appears on “top docs” lists in the media, says he chose to specialize in head and neck cancers early in his surgical training after becoming intrigued by the ability of surgeons to reconstruct defects created by the removal of such cancers. Several of his professional papers address the subject of facial and vocal reconstruction following tumor removal.

Schuller traded in his stethoscope for a hard hat two years ago to become part of a group to oversee a $1.1 billion Ohio State medical center expansion that includes a new cancer hospital. The project will marry the missions of research, education, and patient care into one cohesive effort and represents the culmination of a career dedicated to improving the lives of cancer patients. “I couldn’t have gone forward without being personally convinced that research is making a difference with this disease,” he says. “That’s why I’ve thrown everything at it.”

What will the doctor do once the ribbon is cut in 2014? “Then Dave Schuller becomes a fishing guide in Canada,” he says.

(This story is excerpted from “5 Star Alumni” in the Spring 2012 issue of Rutgers Magazine.)