Gastrointestinal Cancer Research

Cancers of the gastrointestinal tract, including cancers of the esophagus, stomach, liver, pancreas, colon, and rectum are common. Physician scientists from this center continue to lead pioneering studies in cancer screening, cancer control, and prevention. 

One of the Division’s featured studies is the Prostate, Lung, Colorectal and Ovarian (PLCO) Cancer Screening Trial, which examines the effectiveness of cancer screening tests and is one of the largest trials in the world, having randomized nearly 155,000 men and women ages 55 to 74.  Dr. Robert Schoen serves as the principal investigator for the Colon Organ Site Committee for this study and coordinates all of the study’s colon projects.

Dr. Schoen is also a principle investigator for the FORTE study (Five or Ten Year Colonoscopy for 1-2 Non-Advanced Adenomatous Polyps, or NRG-CC005), a large, randomized trial of surveillance colonoscopy for participants with a first-time diagnosis of 1 or 2 adenomas.


Dr. Brand's Research

Dr. Brand is a physician-scientist with an extensive background in pancreatic diseases who focuses mainly on the early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and cystic lesions of the pancreas. He also has research interests involving familial pancreatic cancer and other hereditary GI disorders. He is leader of the University of Pittsburgh’s Pancreatic Adenocarcinoma Gene-Environment Registry (PAGER). This biospecimen repository, which was developed as part of the PAGER study, is nationally recognized and serves as an excellent resource for multiple NIH/NCI funded projects along with national and international collaborations with outside researchers. Dr. Brand is a key contributor to the Early Detection Research Network, especially in research related to pancreatic cancer and cystic neoplasms. He is currently funded in the network as a principal investigator to lead both a multi-center Pancreatic Cancer Clinical Validation Center and Biomarker Developmental Laboratory.

Dr. Chennat's Research

Dr. Chennat’s research investigates such conditions as Barrett’s esophagus neoplasia, endotherapies for pancreatitis, novel imaging techniques such as confocal endomicroscopy, and endoscopic devices and product designs related to guided visualization and targeted tissue ablation.

Dr. Fasanella's Research

Dr. Fasanella’s research focuses on surveillance of pancreatic cystic lesions, biomarkers of risk in Barrett’s esophagus, and outcomes of endoscopic treatment of high-risk Barrett’s esophagus and Barrett’s-related neoplasia.

Dr. Greer's Research

Dr. Greer’s research focuses on cancer epidemiology related to colon and pancreatic cancer, acute and chronic pancreatitis, nutrition, inflammatory bowel disease risk factors and case management, bioinformatics, and medical education in digestion and nutrition.

Dr. Liu's Research

The laboratory of Dr. Yang Liu focuses on developing personalized approaches to improve early cancer detection. Current clinical practice relies on a one-size-fits-all-approach, which screens the entire at-risk population to identify a small percentage of truly high-risk patients, as with colonoscopy and mammography. Frequent, invasive surveillance of patients at risk for developing cancer carries financial, physical, and emotional burdens and can do more harm than good to the patients. Given that nuclear architecture is one of the hallmarks in cancer diagnostics, our premise is based on nanoscale nuclear architecture mapping to identify earlier and more accurate markers and to understand the characteristic alteration of nanoscale (i.e., less than 100 nm) nuclear architecture in cancer initiation and progression. Current tools to visualize nuclear architecture are mostly limited to microscale. This multi-disciplinary team integrates optics, physics, engineering, bioinformatics, chemistry, biology and clinical medicine, and develops imaging technologies to address this highly unmet clinical need. Our current projects include: (1) Development of high-throughput, low-cost super-resolution fluorescence microscopy (e.g., STORM) system for nanoscale imaging of chromatin organization at various epigenomic states, (2) Understanding the disruption of nanoscale chromatin organization in cancer initiation and progression, (3) Clinical translation of nanoscale nuclear architecture mapping to predict risk for progression to malignancy in various pre-malignant conditions such as adenoma, inflammatory bowel disease, pancreatic cyst, prostate lesions and Barrett’s esophagus. Our technical expertise includes optical instrument development, high-speed image reconstruction algorithm development, image processing methods, single-molecule localization microscopy, quantitative phase imaging, optical coherence microscopy and light-sheet microscopy.

Dr. McGee's Research

Dr. McGee’s researches the effectiveness of technology-based education with a focus on simulation and web-based learning. This research applies virtual patient simulation, technical standards and education analytics (big data) to improve clinical decision-making and educational outcomes.

Dr. McGrath's Research

Dr. McGrath’s research focuses on endotherapy for the management of Barrett’s esophagus and superficial esophageal cancer, evaluation of pancreatic cystic lesions and cyst aspirate analysis, and EUS-guided tissue acquisition.

Dr. O'Keefe's Research

Dr. O’Keefe performs translational research into the physiological and pathophysiological responses to feeding and nutritional deprivation. He has received NIH R01 grant support for his studies on the physiological effects of feeding on pancreatic enzyme synthesis in humans with and without disease, the optimal feeding in patients with severe acute pancreatitis, and, most recently, the role of diet, the microbiome and its metabolites in determining colon cancer risk in extreme risk Alaska Native People, high-risk African Americans (AA), and minimal risk rural South Africans (NA). His pivotal study in Nature Communications in 2015 showed that switching the diets of AA and NA (i.e., Americans were given a traditional African diet high in fiber, low in meat and fat, while Africans were given a westernized diet high in meant and fat, and low in fiber) led to profound changes in the colonic microbiome and its metabolome, associated with reciprocal changes in colonic mucosal biomarkers of cancer risk within two weeks. This supports the hypothesis that diet drives colon cancer risk and that it is largely preventable by a high fiber diet. Studies are underway in Alaska to determine whether fiber supplementation will annul the health disparity and extreme rates of colon cancer risk and mortality in Alaska Natives. Finally, Dr. O’Keefe is partnering with the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa to develop the African Microbiome Institute, which he directs, with the goal of studying the ecology of the microbiome through the Faculties of Medicine, Agrisciences, and Plant Biology, with the overarching aim of improving the health of all Africans.


llustration of some of the major mechanisms whereby a high-fibre diet can prevent diseases associated with high-income lifestyles HDACi=histone deacetylase inhibitors. GPCR=G protein-coupled receptor.

Click image to enlarge.

Dr. Sarkaria's Research

Dr. Sarkaria’s research focuses on screening, early detection, and endoscopic therapies for gastrointestinal cancers, including pancreas, bile ducts, gallbladder, esophagus, stomach, and colon, as well as benign pancreaticobiliary diseases and pancreatic cysts.

Dr. Schoen's Research

Dr. Schoen’s research interests center on the early detection and prevention of colorectal cancer (CRC). He is a principal investigator in the PLCO cancer screening trial, a randomized trial of over 154,000 individuals which evaluated flexible sigmoidoscopy. He has used PLCO data to study surveillance colonoscopy utilization and yield, interval cancers (cancers detected shortly after endoscopic procedures), and the risk of colorectal cancer among subjects with a family history of cancer. Dr Schoen is the principal investigator, in collaboration with the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, of a multicenter randomized immunotherapy trial, evaluating a vaccine for prevention of recurrent adenomatous polyps. He is a principal investigator for the Early Detection Research Network and collaborates with scientists nationally and internationally to identify biomarkers, including circulating tumor DNA and tissue-based markers, to detect and monitor cancer. He is an investigator in the Genetics and Epidemiology of Colorectal Cancer Consortium, which is studying genetic and environmental risk factors for CRC, including genome-wide association studies and molecular pathologic epidemiology research as well as the modeling of CRC risk using genetic and environmental risk factors. Dr. Schoen is a co-investigator in a study evaluating colonoscopy quality and is helping to develop a natural language processing tool to evaluate and report on colonoscopy quality in a more efficient manner. In conjunction with that project, Dr. Schoen is developing a database of colonoscopy reports from the last 20 years at UPMC hospitals for research studies on colonoscopy.

Dr. Slivka's Research

Dr. Slivka’s research interests include non-invasive diagnosis of pancreaticobiliary cancer, development and testing of new drugs and devices used during ERCP, and the development of new strategies to treat pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer.

Contact Us

Division of Gastroenterology,
Hepatology and Nutrition

Mezzanine Level, C-Wing, PUH
200 Lothrop Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15213
412-864-7091  |  Email

UPMC Digestive Disorders Center

1-866-4GASTRO (442-7876)

Center for Liver Diseases


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