General Surgery Resident Receives Grant to Evaluate Anal Cancer Screening in Veterans

Congratulations to third-year general surgery resident Austin Hewitt, MD, who recently received a Research Initiation Grant from the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons (ASCRS). The award will provide him with $20,000 for one year to conduct full-time research focused on diseases of the colon, rectum, and anus. Dr. Hewitt, who is also funded on the Department of Surgery’s Surgical Oncology Research Training Program (T32), plans to become an academic colorectal surgeon who addresses healthcare disparities through both research and the clinical care of individuals who have and/or who are at risk for colorectal cancer.

“With this grant from the ASCRS, I will have the opportunity to gain discipline-specific knowledge and strengthen my research skillset, all of which is instrumental to helping me launch my career as a health services researcher,” said Hewitt.

Working under the mentorship of Cristina Sanger, MD, associate professor in the Division of Colorectal Surgery, Dr. Hewitt’s research will focus on anal cancer screening in a group of patients who are considered at-risk but for whom data are currently lacking: patients who are taking pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) medications to prevent HIV infection.

“We suspect these patients are not being adequately screened for anal neoplasia,” Hewitt explained. “As a result, the prevalence of anal neoplasia and anal cancer in this population is not well-characterized.”

He plans to study this by looking at a national dataset of patients at the VA who are receiving PrEP therapy. Dr. Hewitt also plans to conduct interviews with VA clinicians who prescribe PrEP therapy to determine acceptance of and barriers to performing anal cancer screenings in veterans on PrEP. The results of this study will inform current screening practices within the VA for patients on PrEP, identify risk predictors for anal neoplasia and anal cancer in this population, and ascertain system-, hospital-, clinician-, and patient-level factors that could be altered to improve rates of anal cancer screening.