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A Conversation with Dr. Wei Song

We are pleased to introduce you to Wei Song, M.D., Ph.D. Dr. Song is the new Director of the Molecular Pathology Division, Director of the Clinical Genomics Laboratory, and an Assistant Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. He is also Assistant Attending Pathologist at NewYork-Presbyterian.

We hope you enjoy learning more about him and his research interests, and how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected him.

Wei Song, BM, PhD
Assistant Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine

Question: Congratulations on your promotion to Director of the Molecular Pathology Division. Can you tell us what your broad goals are?

“Thanks. I would like to contribute to revolutionizing the conventional pathology diagnosis in a brand-new era, i.e. applying molecular profiling as a novel diagnostic tool for patient care in the new era of precision diagnosis.”

How will the new position affect your work within the other departments? You'll have a lot on your plate!

“It will be challenging. Fortunately, we already have a strong team and faculty leadership within the Clinical Genomics Laboratory. The already existing framework and departmental support, will allow me to focus on the supervision of quality management and new assay development which are two areas critical for future growth.”

Where do you see the Molecular Division five years from now?

“I’d like to help lead our division to become recognized as a top five comprehensive molecular pathology program covering multiple medical areas including oncology, infectious disease, genetics. We also would like to expand our service to other regional hospitals in New York City.”

How would you describe Molecular Pathology to a person who may have no idea what this department does?

“We are able to make a diagnosis by using each patient’s specific genetic molecular coding, such as DNA or RNA. Such precise diagnosis enables treatment in a much more targeted, accurate and efficient way.”

Why should a patient care about Molecular Pathology?

“This is big topic and we could talk about it for a whole day!

First, great progress in biomedical research has advanced our understanding of disease and we now know that many diseases, especially cancer, are caused by specific genetic coding alterations. Molecular pathology aims to provide an accurate clinical-level detection of those pathogenic alterations. In short, the understanding of disease has reached the molecular level.

Second, in the past five years, one major breakthrough in medicine, especially cancer treatment, is the development of many “targeted” therapy drugs which can specifically inhibit individual “pathogenic” molecules but won’t negatively affect other “normal molecule” of the body. Because those “pathogenic” molecules are precisely the cause of cancer in many instances, such “targeted” therapy can be more efficient and less toxic to the body. The job of molecular pathology is to identify the “pathogenic” molecules that cause cancer in as many patients as possible.”

Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) is currently the technology in the forefront of molecular diagnostics. Do you anticipate NGS to continue to grow or do you foresee additional technologies moving into this space?

“NGS is another key breakthrough revolutionizing Pathology into the era of the molecule, and revolutionizing medicine into the era of precision medicine. We are still in the early of stage of applying NGS into clinical practice, especially the pathology practice.”

What do you see as the strengths of the division and how do you plan to leverage those strengths?

“In our division, we have over 10 experienced molecular pathologists, including three full professors and over 40 technologists, all of whom are licensed by the State of New York. Our current services are comprised of oncology, infectious disease, OB/GYN, and genetics.

What are areas that need growth and how do you plan to grow them?

“Currently, all four clinical molecular pathology labs are physically separated. We need to consolidate all our resources to grow together in a more efficient way.”

Healthcare, and more specifically molecular diagnostics, is a rapidly changing and evolving field. Historically, academic centers have been slow to transform in comparison to private entities and even start-ups. Is this a concern? How do you plan to combat this?

“Great question. In short, we need to adapt a “startup” spirit into molecular pathology practice. We need to position ourselves to be more nimble and maintain the ability to quickly pivot or reprioritize as technology and science can rapidly evolve.

“First, we need to always listen to our customers. Molecular pathology is such a fast-growing entity. While we cannot get everything done is a short period, we might focus on the patient’s needs first, and what our clinicians want most. Next, we need to build things in a cost-effective way. For example, bioinformatics is always one of the largest costs for NGS testing. There are two ways to handle it – inhouse development or use a commercially available product. We would like to choose an option which is less expensive and takes less time, instead of sticking to one model.

“Lastly, we need to reach out to industries, such pharmaceuticals and medical instrument companies. We have been doing this in the Clinical Genomics Laboratory for the past four years and have generated collaborations with several big companies. These efforts keep us at the forefront of the most advanced technology and bring us substantial revenue. I will continue this effort in the new Division of Molecular Pathology.”

When and why did you know that you would dedicate your career to Molecular Pathology?

“After I finished my medical education in China, I came to the USA and continued my molecular genetics research career. I finished my Ph.D. at UPENN and conducted six years postdoctoral research at UCSF/HHMI. After I resumed my medical career and finished my pathology residency training in 2013, I was looking for a pathology subspecialty which can marry my medical and scientific research training. Luckily, I found a perfect match in molecular pathology. I finished my fellowship at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, which provided a complete one-year training in NGS diagnosis.

“I always tell people that I am doing the right work, at the right place, and the right time. My 25+ years of training was all worth it.”

Can you tell us a time or case where the work of molecular pathology had a direct impact on patient care?

“There are so many. But recently we had a 17-year old girl who suffered shortness-of-breath (SOB) and the first suspect was COVID (of course at this period). She ended up having an extremely rare tumor – Generalized Lymphageomatosis (GLA). Within this disease, small lymphatic vessels grow uncontrollably all over the body. For this patient, it grows into her pleural cavity and cause the symptom of SOB. The etiology of GLA is still unknown, and there is unfortunately no specific treatment either.

“This patient came to Weill Cornell Medicine and we performed a biopsy and subsequent molecular pathology testing. Surprisingly, we found a ROS1 translocation in her tumor that has never been reported before! Literally, this is the first time that GLA was shown to be caused by a specific type of genetic alteration! More importantly, there is an FDA-approved drug target this genetic alteration.

“Our work not only determined an effective treatment for this patient, also identified a cancer-specific genetic alteration for this type of tumor for the first time.”

That is really fascinating! I’m glad the patient is doing well, and that she didn’t have COVID in addition to her cancer. Can you tell me how the pandemic has affected you and your work?

“The COVID pandemic has impacted all of us in so many ways. However, as a health care provider, this is the time for us to step up and meet the challenge head-on. The pandemic has not adversely impacted my lab, but the volume of our cases is up significantly. Interestingly, as of the beginning of December, our testing case volume for the year has increased by 50% compared to all of 2019.”

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