by KIM HILSENBECK
The need for surgery to remove a potentially cancerous thyroid has been significantly reduced, thanks in part to the former medical chief of staff at Seton Medical Center Hays.
Dr. Tom Traweek, a board-certified pathologist, still works part-time at the hospital. But he gave up his position as chief of staff in January to spend more time at Thyroid Cytopathology Partners (TCP) – a local firm he and other doctors formed specifically for the business of thyroid analysis. TCP is the pathology partner working with Veracyte, a biotech start-up in San Francisco.
“I couldn’t do both well,” Traweek said.
In the medical community, Traweek said Veracyte is known as a leader in molecular cytology. The firm developed the Afirma thyroid FNA analysis; it’s a test for thyroid cancer that provides patients with more accurate results and can substantially reduce the need for costly thyroid surgery and a lifetime of hormone replacements.
The test, which patients can get at Seton Medical Center Hays, uses a microchip to more closely analyze the expressions on the 142 genes of the thyroid. That microchip is about the size of the end of a little finger.
In the not too distant past, Traweek said about 15-20 percent of thyroid tests came back with an “indeterminate diagnosis,” meaning, doctors could not say for sure whether a patient had thyroid cancer.
Erring on the side of caution, he said many doctors recommended patients have their thyroid removed. Thousands of those removed thyroids were tested and found to be benign, rendering the surgery unnecessary.
The New England Journal of Medicine published a study with results suggesting the Veracyte test can reduce unnecessary thyroid surgeries.
Traweek said with the Veracyte test, the removal of thyroids has gone down by half. And while the test comes with a hefty price tag of about $3,500, thyroid removal surgery costs anywhere from $12,000 to $18,000. Add to that a lifetime supply of hormone replacement therapy.
Last year, Traweek said Veracyte contracted with TCP to conduct about 25,000 analyses submitted by doctors from 42 different states, which are sent to pathologists like Traweek by FedEx. He estimates the number of tests will double this year. That’s a lot of FedEx boxes.
Traweek said that means TCP will grow, as well.
“We hired three pathologist last year,” he said. “We will hire three more this year.”
Traweek expects the need for shipping samples will go down with the opening of Veracyte’s new lab in Austin later this year. Customer care and billing operations will also move to Austin, but some laboratory work and executive offices will remain in California.