Surgeon Researchers: From the Operating Room to the Research Lab

Susan Van Dusen

A career in surgery undoubtedly leads to long hours and high stress. So why would a surgeon choose to add medical research to his or her already hectic schedule?

For pediatric head and neck surgeon Gresham Richter, M.D., the reason is simple.

“I want to find a way to help patients without putting them through the ordeal of surgery,” he said.

For Richter that means establishing a research lab and tissue bank to investigate potential drug treatments for aggressive arteriovenous (AVM) and lymphatic vascular malformations, incurable blood vessel disorders that if left untreated, grow uncontrollably by infiltrating and destroying tissue.

Housed at Arkansas Children’s Hospital Research Institute, the tissue bank stores samples collected from patients during surgical procedures and uses them for biomedical research. Since it was established in 2009, Richter’s research team is already seeing promising results.

“Based on our research, we’ve starting using a simple antibiotic to control AVMs and are having some success,” said Richter, who see patients at Arkansas Children’s Hospital (ACH) and is endowed chair, vice chief of pediatric otolaryngology and associate professor in the UAMS College of Medicine’s Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery.

One of the biggest challenges for a surgeon who wants to conduct research is time management. Pediatric urologist Stephen Canon, M.D., begins his day at 4 a.m. to pursue research interests and maintain his surgical schedule. “It’s about maximizing time, focusing on what you can do and multitasking,” he said.

If we can find better ways to operate and give our patients a better chance at recovery, we are happy.
Canon, associate professor and program director of pediatric urology in the College of Medicine Department of Urology, left private practice to join UAMS in part because of its large research infrastructure. He practices at ACH and specializes in correcting hypospadias, a condition in which boys are born with the opening of the urethra on the underside of the penis instead of the tip.

The work of Canon’s team, which includes research assistant Carol Sikes, R.N., has shown a high prevalence of hypospadias in Arkansas. “We are seeing milder forms of the condition becoming better recognized and driving up diagnosis rates,” Canon said.

He wants to follow patients long term to better understand their outcomes. “This is a career-long interest of mine,” he said.

Fellow UAMS physician Michiaki Imamura, M.D., Ph.D., also understands the challenges of incorporating research into his busy schedule. As chief of Pediatric Cardiothoracic Surgery and professor in the College of Medicine Department of Surgery, Imamura spends 95 percent of his time treating patients with heart disease or heart failure, from newborn babies through adults with congenital heart conditions.

Due to his high patient load, Imamura’s research interest in improving heart valve replacement outcomes is primarily led by his colleague Takeshi Shinkawa, M.D., assistant professor in the Department of Surgery.

When cardiac patients undergo heart valve replacement, it’s common for their bodies to reject the new valve. With Imamura’s leadership, Shinkawa has developed a method of constructing artificial blood vessels containing a valve structure that lessens the chance of rejection.

“We are now exclusively using the heart valves that Dr. Shinkawa constructs by hand,” Imamura said, adding that Shinkawa presented findings of their research at a meeting of the Society of Thoracic Surgeons in early 2015.

“If we can find better ways to operate and give our patients a better chance at recovery, we are happy,” Shinkawa said.