Growing up, Dr. Jonathan Villena-Vargas had no idea what he wanted to be when he grew up. The only thing he knew for certain was that he did not want to become a physician.
Born in Peru, Jonathan and his family immigrated to the West Coast of the United States when he was six. His parents both worked in the medical field – his father was a cardiac surgeon, his mother a nurse. Despite – or perhaps because of this – he was adamant against going into medicine. Fortunately for the lung cancer community, he changed his mind midway through his undergraduate studies.
As an undergraduate student at California Polytechnic University, Dr. Villena began his academic studies focused on engineering. It wasn’t long before he came to understand that engineering wasn’t for him.
“Engineering is a lot like medicine, the big differentiator being one works with machines, the other with people. I love interacting with people, so I pivoted my studies to pre-med.”
Surgeon or Researcher?
Initially, Dr. Villena wanted to be a pediatric cardiac surgeon. This was due, in no small part, to the influence of his mentor, Dr. Leonard L. Bailey. Back in 1984, Dr. Bailey had successfully transplanted a baboon heart into a baby. This was the first successful primate to infant heart transplant in history. Not many surgeons performed surgery on infants in the early 1980s.
Dr. Villena was inspired and awed by the possibilities that existed at the hands of a skilled surgeon. He was drawn to the fast pace and leadership opportunities. The lilt in his voice changes when he recalls his experiences as a medical student. He recognized the importance of transporting infant hearts to children who might otherwise not make.
Dr. Villena grappled with what to do. He was deeply drawn to both surgery and research and felt like he had to make a choice. Thinking holistically and out of the box, he decided to research and pursue the surgeon/scientist model. This model is very unusual. In it, a physician needs not choose between the two disciplines. Instead he practices both. Only 1.5% of all researchers are practicing surgeons. Dr. Villena set his mind to being among that small minority.
From Heart to Lung Immunotherapy
It was not long before it became clear to Dr. Villena that there were very few translational research opportunities in the field of heart surgery. That prompted him to pivot to thoracic surgery. There he found a mentor who was studying immunotherapy and the burgeoning field of adoptive transfer of T-cells for the treatment of cancer.
He joined that lab and became completely engrossed in the power of the immune system. As he delved deeper into the research he saw how fast-moving and deeply impactful the work was. Upon seeing for himself that this field of study was killing cancer, he was hooked.
Based on what he was learning and seeing, Dr. Villena shifted to thoracic oncology. But he took with him a solid plan to continue with research as well. Dr. Villena’s signature desire is to be the best physician he can be. So, he stayed on for an additional year of fellowship. Upon finishing his residency, he completed a year of cardiac thoracic fellowship. Dr. Villena has a deep understanding and appreciation of the importance of being an excellent researcher and surgeon.
LCFA Grant Helps Funds NSCLC Research
Dr. Villena is a grant recipient from LCFA. He is studying a key immune response in patients with early-stage non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). Although surgery is a common treatment for these patients, half of them experience cancer spread within 5 years. A type of treatment called immune checkpoint blockade (ICB) has been effective in about a quarter of lung cancer patients. However, it’s still unclear which combination of treatments works best.
Dr. Villena-Vargas’ research involves a mouse model to mimic early lung cancer and its recurrence after surgery. His initial findings show that a major immune response in the lymph nodes can help prevent cancer from returning. His lab is now focusing on understanding how certain immune cells in the lymph nodes of early-stage patients can help stop cancer from spreading. They are using both mouse models and patient-derived cells to explore this “immune-memory” response further.
In his (very limited) free time, Jon enjoys reading, cooking, and playing soccer and tennis. Of course, he mostly dotes on his newborn son, Jonathan.
We are thrilled to have surgeon researcher Dr. Villena as one of our LCFA-funded researchers.