The following are reprinted from the Spring 2018 issue of the School of Medicine’s flagship publication, Pitt Med magazine. Click here for more.
Robot, scalpel please. Laligam Sekhar (Neurosurgical Resident ’82), the vice chair of neurosurgery at the University of Washington, in Seattle, counts among his many research projects the development of an artificially intelligent robotic assistant, one that would “learn from various experiences” during surgery. Sekhar, who has secured seven patents for his research, is additionally developing AI techniques to reduce treatment costs for patients with aneurysms. An expert in skull-based tumors and cerebrovascular surgery, Sekhar also instructs medical students and residents in a cadaver-based training lab at UW. Sekhar first helped develop a similar lab at Pitt and later recreated one at UW. These labs allow surgeons to learn the operations first on cadavers, Sekhar says, “so that in the operating room, they’re well prepared.”
Karna Murthy (MD ’98), associate professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University, spent a lot of time on the phone in 2006. He called hospitals around the country to help pitch the Children’s Hospitals Neonatal Consortium, an online database for physicians to share information on complex and rare conditions that newborns face. Early on, Murthy called Beverly Brozanski (MD ’82), professor of pediatrics at Pitt Med and medical director of the NICU at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, who signed Pitt up. She says the consortium, of which she’s a board member and an executive group member, has since brought “a collaborative spirit and forum” to neonatal intensive care nationwide. Thirty-four hospitals now share their NICU data with the consortium, aggregating information on more than 20,000 babies per year. Murthy serves as vice chair of the consortium.
Brian Keith McNeil (MD ’01) made TV appearances with NFL Hall of Fame cornerback Michael Haynes in September, prostate awareness month, as part of a Urology Care Foundation campaign called Know Your Stats. McNeil, who is the urology vice chair and residency program director at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, discussed men’s health with Haynes as part of his role as a 2017–18 fellow ambassador with the New York Academy of Medicine. (Fellow ambassadors provide expertise to the media to help improve urban health.) He says it feels good to be in a position to keep men healthy. When McNeil was a teenager in West Philadelphia, his father died from prostate
Michael Lynch (MD ’04, Emergency Medicine Resident ’07, Medical Toxicology Fellow ’09) became the Pittsburgh Poison Center’s medical director in 2013. Back then, for the most part, callers needed treatment for ingestion of household toxins. Then calls about opioid overdoses flooded in. Last year, Lynch’s team rolled out a “warm handoff” program. It’s the first poison center in the country to tackle the opioid epidemic in this way, he says. Instead of merely referring callers elsewhere, the team extends a “warm hand” by assessing callers for addiction, connecting them directly to treatment options, and making follow-up calls. “I can’t think of anything more poisonous” than opioids, says Lynch, assistant professor of emergency medicine at Pitt. He has been asked to join the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Pain Management Inter-Agency Task Force.
The core problem underlying mental illness is communication—not between people, but between areas of the brain—says Alik Widge (MD ’08), assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard. “Different parts of thebrain have intrinsic rhythms,” he explains. When those rhythms get out of sync, people develop conditions likePTSD or OCD. Widge combined his Pitt MD with a robotics PhD from CMU and is now designingan electronic device that fits into the brain to bridge communication gaps. It listens towhich areas of the brain are out of sync, then “works with” the brain’s inherent plasticity. Widge says the device isn’t a permanent crutch. After enough therapy, it could be removed. “Our goal is to give people back some control over their own mind.”
Antonia Chen (Orthopaedic Resident ’13) was one of only three physicians to make 2016’s “40 under 40” list for the Philadelphia Business Journal. Chen specializes in hip and knee replacement—“I help grandma and grandpa walk again,” she says. She has also been researching periprosthetic joint infection and working with medical students as an assistant professor at Thomas Jefferson University. She’s now moving to Boston to join Brigham and Women’s Hospital as their director of arthroplasty research and an attending orthopaedic surgeon with an appointment at Harvard Medical School.
When Tom Miller (MD ’14) got lost on a hike in New Zealand back in 2004, his travel mishap turned out to be fortunate after all. “To entertain myself, I imagined several of the characters that ended up in
the novel,” he says of his book published in February 2018, The Philosopher’s Flight (Simon & Schuster). It’s a fantastical tale set in World War I–era America about a young man breaking into the woman-dominated field off
philosophy. The book’s subtitle, Half Science, Half Magic—Entirely Fantastic, could be the motto for Miller’s dual career as a physician-author. He’s finishing up his emergency medicine residency at the University of Wisconsin
and working on a sequel, The Philosopher’s War. Photo by Abigail Carlin.
Ricardo Londono (PhD ’15, MD ’17) received the Society for Biomaterials’ 2017 Student Award for Outstanding Research. Londono snagged the honor for work he conducted in surgery professor Stephen Badylak’s lab, yielding 22 peer-reviewed manuscripts and five book chapters. His work demonstrated that improperly decellularized biomaterials can lead to encapsulation and scar tissue formation; he also examined the use of biologic scaffolds in esophageal and cardiac tissue repair. Londono, who authored Annals of Biomedical Engineering’s most highly cited publication in 2015, is now a postdoctoral associate in Pitt’s Center for Cellular and Molecular Engineering. He hopes his research can support safety regulations for biomaterials, which don’t go through complete regulatory steps when used in clinical applications, he says, “because we lack adequate criteria for quality compliance.”
— Evan Bowen-Gaddy, Charlotte Couch, Rachel Mennies, and Adrianna Moyer