By Abbey J. Porter

George J. Netto, MD

George J. Netto, MD, the new chair of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, is not “the old image of a pathologist.” In other words, he said, he doesn’t hunch over a microscope alone in his basement, and he is not a shy introvert. Far from it. 

“I'm definitely a ‘people person,’” said Netto, who started at Penn Medicine on August 1. “I don’t stay in my office.” Rather, he likes to get out and talk to residents and other department members, and he keeps an open-door policy. Helping his new department to shape the future of precision pathology is a major goal, but he’ll also take time to discuss his passion for soccer—honed during his upbringing in Brazil—or tips of where to find the best cheesesteaks as a new Philadelphian.

Those “people person” skills also come into play with one of Netto’s key priorities in his new role. It’s building teams and supporting growing talents and helping junior faculty grow in their own careers,” he said—all part of developing “a team of leaders.” And that team is key to Netto’s vision for building a department that leads the way to the future of pathology—a future driven by a technological sea change in the field. 

A critical moment

A specialist in genitourinary and molecular genetic pathology, Netto comes to Penn Medicine from The University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he was the endowed chair of the Department of Pathology from 2016 until this year. Previously, he served as director of Surgical Pathology Molecular Diagnostics at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for five years. Though he speaks highly of those workplaces, Netto said coming to Penn was “a no brainer.”

“The institution is a huge attraction, and the department has a great reputation,” he said. That reputation includes spearheading the development of CAR T cell therapy, an immunotherapy to treat cancer.

He is excited to lead the department during this pivotal time for the field.  “This is an era that is very critical for pathology as a discipline,” he said, citing advances in bioinformatics, data sciences, genomics, and more as a source of transformational change.

“The impact of these advances has been most appreciated in oncology, immunotherapy, cellular therapeutics, and genetic diseases, but the irreversible tide is expected to revolutionize our entire discipline” he said. “Now more than ever, pathologists are on the front lines of precision health.”

Precision pathology

Netto’s ultimate goal is to make Penn Medicine a leader in the pathology of the future—what he calls “precision pathology.” This, he explains, is the practice of providing the most precise personalized diagnoses and predictions of how a disease will respond to therapy, tailored to each patient based on their blood or tissue analysis, combined with information about their genetics and their disease course and symptoms.

“This department has a lot of strengths that we can capitalize on,” Netto said. They comprise Penn Medicine’s bench science and research in pathology, as well as its emphasis on translational medicine, leading in areas from brain degenerative disease to immunology, he noted. 

“There are huge opportunities on the clinical side to develop more harmonization and ‘systemness’ among the entities that Penn Medicine represents,” he said. New technology such as digitalization, including artificial intelligence, machine learning, and bioinformatics will help address logistical and infrastructure issues, he adds.

Specifically, Netto looks to harmonize the laboratory information system and seamlessly share data electronically among Penn Medicine entities. He also aims to provide all Penn Medicine patients with the same quality of pathology and lab services, regardless of where they seek care, and to assure that clinicians have equal access to service across the system.

A perfect discipline’

The roots of Netto’s identity as a pathologist reach back to his teen years. That’s when Netto—who was born in Brazil to Syrian immigrants—was living in Damascus. “It was really early, in high school, when I was starting to study molecular biology, that I knew this was what I wanted to do,” he said. 

He gravitated toward a career in medicine. He also wanted to know why certain diseases like cancer occur—and how to treat them. “Pathology is a field where you're part clinician and part scientist,” he said. “So it’s a perfect discipline.”

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