Former Seton Hays chief of staff behind new thyroid test
Seton Medical Center Hays’ former medical chief of staff is behind a Silicon Valley firm’s successful launch of a new test to more accurately diagnose thyroid cancer and dramatically cut the number of surgeries that occur because other tests prove inconclusive.
As a result, thousands of patients across the U.S. need not have all or part of their thyroid glands removed – and then don’t have to take medications for the rest of their lives.
Another result: this doctor has stepped away from his leadership role at Seton Hays so he can devote more time at this business opportunity – but he’s not moving to Silicon Valley. Instead, the company is moving many of its operations to Central Texas this year.
Dr. Tom Traweek still will work about one third of the time at Seton’s hospital in Kyle, but he will devote more time to the fast-growing business run by Veracyte, a biotech start-up in South San Francisco, Calif.
More than 50,000 Americans annually are found to have malignant nodules, or tiny lumps, on their thyroid, located in the front of the neck, and about 1,750 will die, according to the National Cancer Institute.
About 125,000 patients, fearing the worst, have surgery at a cost usually ranging from $12,000 to $18,000 and also face a lifetime need to take thyroid hormone medications. Veracyte’s test costs about $3,500 – and helps prevent unnecessary surgeries.
The nodules require testing to see if they’re malignant. A tissue sample can be obtained via a fine-needle biopsy.
In most cases, standard tests can ascertain if a tissue sample shows cancer or not, but 15 to 30 percent produce uncertain results. In these cases, doctors tend to err on the side of caution and operate, removing all or part of patients’ thyroids.
The new test developed by Traweek, called the “affirma gene expression classifier,” solves this problem by taking a closer look at the tissue sample. Basically, the test checks 160 pieces of DNA and 140 human genes determined to be important for thyroid function.
If the test shows the sample is normal, there’s a 98 percent chance that there is no cancer. If it’s abnormal, there remains a 50-50 chance of cancer, Traweek said.
This test has led Veracyte to become a “one stop shop” for thyroid nodule assessments. Last year, the company conducted about 25,000 analyses submitted by doctors from 42 different states. This year, the company expects to double the number of tests, Traweek said.
“The test sells itself. It fills a real gap in thyroid diagnosis,” he said.
Traweek jokes about how many overnight delivery boxes with thyroid tissue samples are exchanged between Veracyte’s offices and Thyroid Cytopathology Partners, the local firm he and other doctors have formed for this business. Fewer delivery boxes will be necessary once Veracyte moves laboratory, customer care and billing operations to Austin within the next few months, Traweek said. Some laboratory work and executive offices will remain in California.
Traweek said it proved impossible to work with Veracyte and continue as chief of Seton Hays medical staff, a position he held until Jan. 1, but he will remain a staff pathologist at the Kyle hospital.
“I can’t keep doing both, but (with Veracyte) I can make a difference in patient care here and across the country. To be part of this is very exciting,” he said.