January 25, 2022

Meet Matthew Goodwin, MD, PhD 

Spine Specialist

In his practice, Dr. Goodwin treats patients with unique spinal conditions, including spinal tumors. He has specialized training in both orthopedics and neurosurgery. 

Where are you from?  

I was born and raised in Greenville, SC. I grew up in a family of six and attended public schools, where my mom was a math teacher. 

What made you choose orthopedics as a specialty?
As a PhD student I became very interested in cancer and cancer metabolism, and actually planned on becoming an internal medicine/hematology oncology physician. However, when I was a third-year medical student, I quickly realized I was a surgeon and was very interested in the oncological branches of surgery. I recall being most at home in orthopedics. I really liked the culture of teamwork and how there is real pride in perfecting the craft; that resonated with me.  Once I got into ortho I was pretty sure I would be an orthopedic oncologist and spend time in the lab working on sarcoma projects while doing extra orthopedic oncology rotations. However, as soon as I rotated on spine, I immediately and unexpectedly fell in love with all aspects of the practice, from the clinic to the OR. I like the high stakes and pressure involved in the surgeries and the attention that they demand. I also like being able to help patients in what is often the worst time of their life. A patient may not only have a devastating disease (cancer), but may also be dealing with neurologic deficits/paralysis, pain, and may be quite sick. In metastatic disease, spine surgery can restore function and alleviate pain, and if the tumor is an isolated tumor of the spine, surgery (when done correctly) can cure. I enjoy working on teams, and in spine and spinal oncology, I am constantly working with teams of providers in an effort to deliver the highest level of care.


What brought you to Washington University Orthopedics?  

I am an MD-PhD surgeon-scientist who runs a basic science lab and has a full spine practice.  Washington University Orthopedic Surgery is one of the few places in the country, if not world, that understands and supports my goals as a surgeon-scientist. There is direct competition for time when trying to run a lab and operate on complicated patients that may require urgent or emergent surgery. Add to that trying to be a husband and father, and it is difficult to balance; there just is not enough time. Our chair, Regis O’Keefe, MD, PhD, gets that and works hard to make sure we are successful in all areas. While we often talk about surgery and research, it is just as common for him to ask me how my family is doing, or how my runs and workouts are going. There has been more than one occasion where I felt like lab work was falling behind, COVID was stressing everything, and I had patients that needed my immediate attention. On more than one occasion Dr. O'Keefe or my division chief Jacob Buchowski, MD, MS, have called or stopped me to ask about life, my family, running, etc. That support at one of, if not the, top academic center in the world is important to me, and serves to remind me to keep priorities straight in life. Given the duality of my position here and my specialty, balancing clinical work and surgery with my lab and doing experiments, I have had unequivocal support from our department.


What aspect of your practice do you find most interesting or rewarding?

There are so many rewarding aspects of this job. One of the things that is so rewarding about my practice is that I often meet patients at their most vulnerable time, and I have the privilege and responsibility to ask them to trust me as we go through things together. There will never be lack of effort or attention on my part. I am humbled by the way patients trust me to help sort out their needs and deliver the best care. I am fortunate that WashU/Barnes has allowed me to grow my practice in such a way that I can deliver very specialized care to patients with complex needs. 


Are you working on any interesting clinical trials or studies right now? 

My lab is a basic science lab, so the projects I find most interesting right now involve different cell lines and mouse studies. Our focus is on the critical role lactate plays in disc degeneration and in tumor growth and progression. Lactate is a three-carbon molecule (half a glucose essentially) that is quite good at moving between tissues rapidly with little energy expended (unlike glucose).  Remarkably, the ability to transport lactate in and out of cells is critical to maintaining a healthy intervertebral disc and is also critical to tumors growing. So, in our lab we are finding ways to 1) maintain or restore lactate transport in the intervertebral disc, which would preserve or restore health to an aging or diseased disc, and 2) do the opposite in tumors – we are trying to find ways to target and block lactate transport as a new way to attack cancer. It has been very gratifying work because what we learn from one area in the lab seems to drive how we approach the other, and both are critical areas in need of better clinical treatment. Having spent my PhD years studying lactate in muscle, it has been fun bringing this knowledge to new impactful areas. I have an outstanding post-doctoral fellow, PhD student, and lab group right now. 


What’s on the horizon for spine care? What are you excited about?

I think in spine we need to be careful with how quickly we push the envelope and in what direction. We have now accumulated enough years of data to understand quite a bit about some of the most common surgeries we do and what the pros and cons of those are. We are still learning about some of the newer areas. We are lucky here at WashU because Keith Bridwell, MD, the father of deformity surgery, still runs a clinic and attends conferences and is always willing to lend his considerable experience and knowledge if we run cases by him.

I am excited about the way we have been able to use deformity principles to better understand the other areas of spine. For example, in single-level surgeries, we now know it is very important that surgeons pay attention to the lumbar lordosis and overall sagittal balance. We have been able to dramatically improve patients’ quality of life after large tumor surgeries by understanding and applying these principles.

I am also excited by the increasing trend of orthopedic spine surgeons and neurosurgical spine surgeons working and training together. I did an orthopedic residency at Utah and a neurosurgery fellowship at Hopkins, and I am a strong believer that working and training together is mutually beneficial. 


What’s the best advice you ever received and who/what was it from?

I have benefited from outstanding mentors throughout my life. I learned so much from my PhD mentor L. Bruce Gladden. He was careful, meticulous and saw the big picture. I remember being a young PhD student with few publications despite several experiments. I remember him telling me that there would be pressure for volume and to take shortcuts throughout your career, but focus has to stay on the science and getting it right, above all else. He is a “scientist’s scientist” – just a great thinker and understood the importance of good controls and reproducibility. 

My dad also had a profound influence on me. While working at a camp the summer after I finished high school, he sent me a card that said, “Some people will say that you are going the wrong way, when it is simply a way of your own.” For the last 23 years that has sat next to my bed or desk and I look at it each day. My parents always encouraged me to pursue the things I was passionate about in life, and that the path for me may not be the path most people see as “correct.” My current position is very much due to the freedom I was allowed in following my passions, and it was important in my development. 


What’s your favorite thing to do outside of work?

Spending time with my wife Mandy, and kids Grant and Madison. We like to do things outside whenever possible; we have enjoyed getting to know some of the hiking and camping areas throughout Missouri. Personally, I still love to run and get in 5 miles every morning at 4am.  My son is currently playing lots of basketball, so it has been fun playing with him and watching him improve. 


If you weren’t a doctor, what would you like to be doing? 

I would be a scientist or a coach or both, most likely studying cancer and exercise.

Learn more about Dr. Goodwin and why patients choose Washington University Orthopedics for their care. 

Request an Appointment

caret-up caret-down