We meet one of The National Hospital’s surgeons who specialises in spinal surgery to talk about his passion for fixing things, his exciting new research, and making a difference…
Q How did you end up specialising in your current field?
A I’ve always wanted to be a surgeon, ever since my teens, so I went to medical school and started training in general surgery. I became interested in the excitement of emergency surgery and it progressed to an interest in brain and spine trauma – it’s technically demanding, and the quality of surgery can make a real difference in how well patients do after surgery. If I’m honest, it’s partly for the satisfaction that comes from fixing something too, there’s gratification from sorting out a problem, especially a tricky one. I feel lucky to be at The National Hospital, I’m surrounded by very able, hard-working and loyal people. The specialist nature of the hospital means that we treat very interesting and challenging conditions, beyond the ordinary, and the close link with the Institute of Neurology means that I can easily conduct a research programme.
Q Tell us about your current research project…
A It’s about regenerating damaged nerves. Normally, nerve fibres of the brain and spinal cord do not re-grow after they have been damaged, except in the nose. Nerve fibres for the sense of smell continuously regenerate due to the olfactory ensheathing cell (OEC for short) in the lining of the nose. We take cells from the nose, grow them in a lab and then plan to transplant the cells back into injured spinal cords or nerve roots to stimulate the nerves to grow back and reverse paralysis. I’m studying ways of growing the cells under strict conditions of cleanliness so the cells can be safely applied to patients.
Q What are your hopes for Queen Square’s future?
A I’d like to see the clinical work expanded with more resources, so that surgeons don’t need to worry about not having the right equipment for complex operations, and having the latest computer navigation systems in theatre to make surgery easier and safer. Right now we need money to build and equip two new operating theatres – it’s crucial for the vision of neurosurgery in Queen Square. For my research, I’d love to have long-term sustainable funding so that I can concentrate more on the research and patients, rather than spending time writing grant applications! I hope to develop cellular therapies, not only for spine and nerve root injuries, but potentially for other neurological disorders as well. I hope to make a difference in more patients’ lives.
Q In 20 years’ time you’ll be working on…?
A Things have moved on so quickly in neurosurgery over the last 10 years, it’s difficult to imagine what 20 years ahead will look like! I would hope that techniques for nerve regeneration have been adopted into regular use, along with other regenerative therapies for diabetes or heart failure, for example. Surgery will be less invasive, and although I use endoscopes already, I think most surgical techniques will be replaced by these minimally invasive technologies, or perhaps nanotechnology.
Q If you weren’t a brain surgeon, what would you be doing for a living?
A Despite the pressures of the job and the stress that comes with it, I’d still choose to do neurosurgery if I had a chance to do it all again. But I’m a practical person − I like fixing things. So I’d probably be an engineer of sorts, fixing airplanes or cars!