AANS Neurosurgeon | Volume 28, Number 3, 2019

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Investing in the Future of Neurosurgery

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Since 2008, one way the Neurosurgery Research & Education Foundation (NREF) has invested in the future of neurosurgery is through its support of the NREF Medical Student Summer Research Fellowships (MSSRFs).

The MSSRF program offers fellowships to medical students in the United States or Canada who wish to spend a summer working in a neurosurgical laboratory, mentored by a neurosurgical investigator sponsor who is a member of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS).

Annually, these fellowships go to the brightest and most dedicated students, whose research projects are aimed at the better understanding, treatment and prevention of neurological disorders and improved patient care.  

Thanks to generous contributions from Aaron Cohen-Gadol, MD, FAANS, of royalties from the sale of the COHEN™ Bipolar Forceps and the Albert L. Rhoton Honor Your Mentor Fund, the NREF was able to award a record-setting 27 medical student fellowships in 2018.

“These students are the key to the future of neurosurgery, and I look forward to working with the NREF to support their mission,” says Dr. Cohen-Gadol.

Support for research grants and fellowships allows the NREF to continue offering the kind of cutting-edge training that helps launch research careers and ultimately advances patient care. “The quality of the research proposals submitted year after year make us optimistic for the future,” says NREF Chair Regis W. Haid, Jr., MD, FAANS.

To illustrate the impact of NREF support on the future of neurosurgery, we look at the careers of two MSSRF recipients, who have gone on to pursue their passion for research as neurosurgeons, resulting in additional support from the NREF with Research Fellowship Grants.

Arjun Pendharkar, MD, a resident in the department of neurosurgery at Stanford University Medical Center, was a recipient of the 2011 AANS/NREF MSSRF for his project “Characterizing chemoattractant and cell adhesion surface receptors in neural stem cells.”

In 2018, Dr. Pendharkar received the American Academy of Neurological Surgery/NREF Research Fellowship Grant for his project, “Role of Contralesional (Uninjured) Hemisphere Activation in Functional Recovery after Stroke.” According to Dr. Pendharkar, NREF research support throughout medical school and neurosurgical residency “provided me with protected time to gain foundational scientific skills as well as neurosurgery faculty mentorship for career development.”

As a medical student under the mentorship of Gary Steinberg, MD, PhD, FAANS, Dr. Pendharkar received training in bench research, critical thinking and writing, which laid the foundation for his work in translational stroke research. The MSSRF-funded work led to multiple basic science publications, which further allowed Dr. Pendharkar to successfully match at Stanford for neurosurgery residency.

During residency, further support from the 2018 award allowed Dr. Pendharkar to spend a year learning and applying optogenetic techniques towards rigorous basic science work interrogating excitatory cortico-thalamic circuits to promote functional recovery after stroke. The initial data from the NREF award led to successful NIH R25 funding and multiple oral presentations at national meetings.

Dr. Pendharkar attributes the longitudinal support from the NREF as having accelerated his career development as an academic cerebrovascular neurosurgeon-scientist. He looks forward to sharing his experiences with the goal of encouraging others to pursue neurosurgical research.

Whitney Parker, MD, a resident at New York Presbyterian Hospital/Cornell, first received support from the NREF for a project undertaken as a medical student – “The Role of Novel NMDA Receptor Variants in Human Brain Development and Epilepsy” – under the mentorship of Gordon Baltuch, MD, PhD, FAANS.

During the fellowship, Dr. Parker learned how to create in vitro and in vivo models to understand fundamental mechanisms of neural migration in early brain development, and subsequently decided to pursue a PhD with an extension of this project.

Through this work, the preclinical data necessary to perform a clinical trial uncovering the first effective therapy for a rare neurodevelopmental disorder known as Pretzel Syndrome was established.

In 2018, Dr. Parker was awarded the NREF and AANS/CNS Section on Pediatric Neurological Surgery 2018-19 Research Fellowship Grant for her project “The Role of Novel NMDA Receptor Variants in Human Brain Development and Epilepsy.” She is learning how to create patient-based models of neurodevelopment by reprogramming fibroblasts from skin biopsies into induced pluripotent stem cells and differentiating these into electrically active neurons and forebrain organoids.

The goal of this work is to better understand the impact of genetic variants associated with epilepsy and continue to develop biologically relevant treatments that can be tested in our in vitro patient-derived models.

Dr. Parker plans to pursue a career as a surgeon-scientist with a focus in pediatric neurosurgery, developing gene- and cell-based therapies that can be used to correct the course of aberrant neurodevelopment as early as possible, perhaps even to be delivered via fetal surgery. According to Dr. Parker, “NREF support has convinced me that it is entirely possible to combine a neurosurgical operative career with a significant research effort. Neurosurgery has seen huge advances in the past few decades, and I believe that the most exciting progress is still to come. I can’t wait to be a part of that.”

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