Director, Division of Gynecologic Oncology, UAMS
When Alexander Burnett, MD, began his OB/GYN residency, he thought he’d join his father, Alec Burnett, also an OB/GYN, in practice “and that would be the start of a great chapter,” he recalled.
Instead, Burnett became good friends, and then great friends, with a fellow in oncology who mentored him in gynecologic oncology.
“My dad retired at the age of 68,” said Burnett, the youngest of four children born to Alec and Donna, a nurse, in Canada. “Up until the last night, if he’d been called out at 3 o’clock in the morning in the rain to deliver a baby, he’d have been high as a kite. He just loved it. I liked delivering babies, but I didn’t love it. I was more interested in pelvic surgery.”
The Burnett family moved to northern Virginia in the 1960s, and Burnett earned an English degree from the University of Virginia. “Yep, I studied honors English with a professor who said if I had an opportunity to go into medicine, I could always come back to English,” he said. “That was a smarter choice. Now I can’t imagine doing anything different.”
Burnett studied medicine at Georgetown University, completing his internship, residency and an American Cancer Society clinical fellowship in gynecologic oncology at the Washington, DC medical school. He was named Georgetown’s top student in OB/GYN in 1986 and won the Residency Award for gynecology in 1990.
After Burnett completed his obstetrics in residency, he never delivered another baby.
“When I finished my fellowship, my dad and I did some cases together,” said Burnett. “He had some patients with cancer and was able to assist me in surgery. It was really enjoyable working with him.”
Of his siblings, only his sister, Mary Burnett, became involved in healthcare. She manages an outreach program in the suburb of Toronto for families of Alzheimer’s patients.
Burnett remained at Georgetown a year following the completion of his fellowship, serving as an OB/GYN instructor until 1994. He then moved to the west coast, where he was an assistant/associate professor in gynecologic oncology at the University of Southern California until 2004, when he joined UAMS as a professor.
“When I first heard about UAMS, I had to locate it on a map,” he joked. “But once I got here, I loved it.”
At UAMS, Burnett has been named to The Circle of Excellence Dean’s List four times, garnered the Red Sash Award for medical student teaching, and was selected by his peers as one of the Best Doctors in America.
He’s heavily involved in fascinating research involving dogs sniffing out ovarian cancer, and is arguably the only OB/GYN specialist in the United States working on this particular type of research.
“About 10 or 15 years ago, there were anecdotal reports about patients visiting their doctor because their dog kept sniffing a part of their body, such as their arm, and they didn’t understand why,” said Burnett. “A few of them had skin cancers the dogs had detected. That led to a couple of small studies involving dogs detecting melanoma. Since then, a number of studies have been associated with dogs detecting various cancers – colon, breast, and lung, for example. We know a tumor can produce an odor associated with it, and the dogs can detect the specific scent associated with the cancer and not normal tissue.
“Serendipitously, I ended up working with the woman who runs the (Search Dog Alliance of) Arkansas. Because only about 20 percent of women are diagnosed as stage I or II ovarian cancer which is highly curable, we wanted to see if we could train dogs to detect an odor associated with ovarian cancer to create a screening test for this disease. Four of their dogs of a variety of breeds have been trained in a fairly short period of time with tissue samples. They pick up on the ovarian cancer scent and don’t detect it in benign tissue. Then when we tested the dogs with urine samples from women who had ovarian cancer versus women who were healthy and had never had cancer, the dogs always were able to hit on the cancerous samples, and left the benign ones alone.”
Burnett was quick to point out that UAMS is in the pilot testing phase of the study. Yet he envisions a day when urine samples from patients who come into the clinic for their annual wellness check-up can be lined up for trained dogs to sniff for early detection of ovarian cancer.
“So far, it’s incredibly exciting, far better than I imagined,” he said. “Potentially, it could be a very effective and very specific, inexpensive population screen, but we’re a long way off. For now, we ask patients who are undergoing surgery to have ovarian tumors removed to donate some of their tissue and urine for training, as well as those who are going into the OR for something not related to ovarian cancer. We store those until we have a chance to work with the dogs. Trainers can teach them to recognize that scent within three hours. Once a dog is trained on a scent, they can recognize it for the rest of their lives, which could be 10 to 15 years. These dogs could be trained all over the United States. It looks very promising.”
An early adopter of robotic technology, Burnett also performs a tremendous amount of robotic surgery. “For women with endometrial cancer, robotic surgery is a great tool,” he said. “They’re discharged the next morning, have a third fewer complications and a speedier recovery. It makes a world of difference in our field.”
Burnett lives on an 80-acre farm outside Conway with his wife, Martha, a nurse he met at the Los Angeles County Hospital who will soon complete a doctorate in nursing from UAMS, with their menagerie of animals – six “farm” dogs, 250 free-range chickens, goats, alpacas, rabbits, and ducks on a pond.
A busy practice, teaching schedule, family and farm life takes up so much of his time, there’s little left for typical hobbies. His two children from a previous marriage are thriving in Los Angeles – Lily, 23, is an actress, and Alexander, 21, a recent college graduate, works in music production.
“Between the work here and at home, that takes up most of my time,” he said. “Besides, one of my dreams was to have a little bit of land and see where that went. We’re having a lot of fun.”