Physician Spotlight: Dr. Gary Onik
How much does Gary Onik, MD love freezing prostate cancer cells? So much so he’s naming his new boat Icewars.
And Onik doesn’t just have more than fifteen years experience in cryosurgery—he’s the inventor and pioneer of ultrasound guided cryosurgery for both the prostate and the liver.
It all started in the late 1970s in Minneapolis, Minn.
He wanted to be an emergency room physician, but the late nights changed his mind. “I did love doing this stuff but I thought ‘I’m not going to be able to do this when I am 50,’ ” he said.
Onik earned his undergraduate degree from Harvard University and his medical degree from New York Medical College in Valhalla. After two years with the Public Health Service—and a two-year stint with a federal penitentiary in Lompoc, Calif.—he went with radiology.
“Every picture is a puzzle,’’ Onik said. “It was just fascinating to try and build out three dimensions from back then what were only two dimensions—there were no ultrasounds and MRIs. Every case was a puzzle. I had to be good at it and I had a real talent for it.”
After his radiology residency at the University of California at San Francisco, Onik went to Boston where he completed an ultrasound radiology fellowship at New England Deaconess Hospital, Harvard Medical School, followed by a research fellowship in interventional radiology.
Today Onik directs Florida Hospital Celebration Health’s prostate cancer research program. He is also the two-time president of the American College of Cryosurgery and has authored several books and articles on the subject of oncology. He recently wrote The Male Lumpectomy: A Rational New Approach to Treating Prostate Cancer and has co-authored the book Prostate Cancer, a Patient’s Guide to Treatment.
Onik has won multiple awards for his pioneering work in oncology and won the 2004 prize for best research paper given by the Society of Uroradiology for his research and techniques pertaining to “ The Male Lumpectomy” for treating prostate cancer.
Thinking back to the beginnings of prostate cryosurgery Onik said, “I had already decided that there had to be a better way to treat tumors than to cut them out.” At that time freezing had a history—freezing skin tumors, for example—and freezing also imaged well. “It was the logical choice,’’ Onik said.
He specifically remembers a patient from about twenty years ago.
“We had just started treating liver tumors with cryo,” said Onik, who was working in Pittsburgh. “We were seeing the patients who had no hope. This particular patient had heard about me from a radiologist friend who had read about our pig studies. She had seven tumors in her liver, and one was sitting on her inferior vena cava, the large vein that carries blood from the lower half of the body into the heart.” And Onik remembered this: She had two little boys, ages 6 months and 2 years.
“We’d only done a few patients and here she was on my doorstep,’’ he said. “I thought really this can’t be done. If I were to look at her x-rays again, knowing everything I know now, I still would say it couldn’t be done.”
“I was literally making it up as I went along,” he said. “I had never done those locations before, and not that many. But somehow we got through it. And she was very sick for awhile, but she recovered.
Five years later Onik was invited to her five-year survival party. And he spoke to her again recently about an unrelated medical issue. “She showed up with her adult kids,” Onik said. “There had to be something divine going on because I didn’t really know what I was doing.”
But perhaps the true test of whether he truly believed in what he was doing was when he received a call one day from his former Harvard professor and medical mentor.
“My own dad died when I was eight—he was like a surrogate dad,” Onik said.
And he was calling to say he had prostate cancer. “What should I do?” he asked.
“Let me just kill the tumor,” Onik told him.
“I had only treated three or four guys this way,’’ Onik said.
Onik’s former teacher has been cancer-free for eight years now. “He was sort of my male lumpectomy poster child.”
Onik said there’s a lingering misperception that prostate cryosurgery is still experimental, when it fact, it was approved by Medicare eight years ago. “There are thousands of people that it is not being offered to,” he said.
“Men are still getting radical prostectomies,” Onik said. “We are showing that we can just treat the tumor, which is also called focal therapy of prostate cancer. That’s the thing I am the most proud of. It’s changing the thinking of prostate cancer.”
Onik maintains ongoing research collaborations with leading centers in the field of prostate cancer including, Stanford University, University of California at Berkeley, University of Virginia and the National Cancer Institute.
For years he’s partnered with a bioengineer named Boris Rubinsky and together, they just in the past few weeks have for the first time begun using another new way to kill tissue. Called irreversible electroporation (IRE), the technique punches holes in cells using microsecond electrical impulses—and leaves other structures intact, including blood vessels and fibroids.
Onik expects the advancement to eventually be able to treat liver and pancreatic cancer. “And it’s happening right here in Orlando,” he said.
You might never know in talking to this laid-back father of four that his list of honors, patents, published books and other writings—not to mention medical experience—is literally pages long.
And that’s how he hopes he’ll be remembered.
“For just being a guy, that although he did some great some things, he never let it go to his head—and he always put the patient first.”