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In memoriam: Cullen M. Taniguchi, MD, PhD

November 28, 2023 By: Tracey Barnett/ MD Anderson UTHealth Houston Graduate School & Maggie Galehouse/MD Anderson

In memoriam: Cullen M. Taniguchi, MD, PhD

MD Anderson UTHealth Houston Graduate School faculty member Cullen M. Taniguchi, MD, PhD, passed away on Nov. 14. He was 47.

Taniguchi was an associate professor with a joint appointment in Gastrointestinal Radiation Oncology and Experimental Radiation Oncology at MD Anderson Cancer Center. He was a physician scientist specializing in gastrointestinal malignancies, with a clinical and research focus on pancreatic cancer.

"Cullen was a role model for everyone, faculty, and trainees alike. He was an exceptional scientist, colleague, and mentor," said Sharon Y.R. Dent, PhD, Graduate School dean ad interim.

One of the leading radiation oncology physician-scientists of his generation, Taniguchi's work played a key role in reducing acute and chronic toxicity from chemoradiation to improve cancer treatment and patient outcomes. His mission to end cancer was motivated by the impact of cancer on his own family.

“He was an exceptional clinician who was loved by his patients for his kind, gentle bedside manner,” said Albert Koong, MD, PhD, Graduate School faculty member and division head for Radiation Oncology. “He had a remarkable ability to communicate difficult news to his patients and their families. He worked tirelessly to advance cancer care, always drawing inspiration from his patients and motivated by doing his best for them.”

Taniguchi joined the Radiation Oncology faculty in 2014 as a Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) Scholar, pursuing work on stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT).

The Taniguchi Laboratory at MD Anderson, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and CPRIT, studies how hypoxia (low oxygen) biology can be used to reduce radiation toxicity in normal tissues to allow higher and potentially ablative doses of radiation to tumors when surgery is not possible. The lab has several early-phase clinical trials.

He was at the forefront of research around FLASH-RT, a new method of radiation therapy with the potential to improve outcomes and the patient experience by shortening the amount of time required for treatment.

Known for his caring and joyful spirit, Taniguchi was deeply committed to mentorship and training. In 2015, he joined the school faculty and was affiliated with the Cancer Biology program.

"Cullen really cared about his students," said Bill Mattox, PhD, the school’s senior associate dean. "He was exceptionally supportive and understanding of those who were going through challenging situations. He was a shelter in the storm." 

And the students and alumni who worked with Taniguchi wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment.

“A few months ago, he gave our lab this career-oriented talk about how to succeed in academia," said Jasper Chen, a current MD/PhD student in the Taniguchi Lab. "He said that everyone has a superpower. I think Cullen's superpower was that he could see our hidden potential that no one else could see, not even ourselves, and he knew how to awaken it."

In 2022, Carolina García García, MD, PhD, graduated from school under Taniguchi’s mentorship. Today, she is an internal medicine resident at the University of Pennsylvania.

"Cullen was more than a mentor to me, he was a friend, an advocate, and a role model,” said García García. "He provided me with unconditional support, guidance, and freedom to pursue my scientific curiosities, clinical interests, and extracurricular endeavors. He changed my life and made me become a better person, a better physician, a better scientist, and a better teacher. Words will fall short with how indebted I am to him, and I will miss his mentorship throughout my career, which is only beginning."

He was also devoted to mentoring junior faculty and promoted their work on social media and other forums.

“He led so many residents, fellows, graduate students and postdocs to numerous successes and highly impactful publications,” said Eugene Koay, MD, PhD, Graduate School faculty member and associate professor in GI Radiation Oncology.

Colleagues also remembered Taniguchi as a family man devoted to his wife, Mariko, and two daughters.

Taniguchi has been recognized for his exceptional work, with honors that include the Andrew Sabin Family Fellowship at MD Anderson in 2016 and several research grants from NIH. Recently, he was named a 2022 Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Earlier this year, he was appointed as the inaugural division director, Physician Scientists-Translational Science program that is aimed at catalyzing laboratory discoveries to clinical impact for the benefit of patients. Taniguchi’s vision and passion for this work were palpable and far-reaching.

“We are all better for having known Cullen,” Koong said. “His contributions in the lab and clinic will continue to impact our field for years to come, however his true legacy will be shaped by the many students, residents, postdoctoral and clinical fellows that he mentored.”


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