The Department of Anesthesiology has made huge strides in research over the past 40 years, thanks to an environment that fosters growth, brilliant academics, and a strong focus on the future of patient care. The accomplishments of current and former faculty, clinical and research post-doctoral fellows, research staff, and residents have largely defined the department’s research program. Our current success can be credited to a spirit of teamwork and interdisciplinary collaboration. Examples of Duke Anesthesiology’s most prestigious research are highlighted below.
Our research program began in the F.G. Hall Laboratory, where studies were focused almost entirely on human physiology. The work conducted here brought Duke Anesthesiology research to national and international prominence and set an early precedent for successful peer-reviewed extramural funding. The F.G. Hall Laboratory was critical not only in defining modern hyperbaric medicine, but also in developing the department’s basic science component.
A formal process for organizing basic science research, which strives to further our understanding of cellular function, its response to stress and drugs, and translational significance, was established in 1994 when David S. Warner, MD, came to Duke to serve as chief of experimental anesthesiology. By 1998, Basic Science was considered a division within the department with Dr. Warner serving as chief. The Basic Science Division also encompasses translational research—an essential bridge between basic and clinical research that enables physician scientists to apply the information obtained from experimental disease models to human subjects.
According to former Vice Chair for Faculty Development Tong Joo “TJ” Gan, MD, MHS, FRCA, translational research is a relatively new concept in academic anesthesia. This important area was often overlooked by major extramural funding sources, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), until about 15 years ago. A stronger emphasis on translational research has enabled our clinical research program to thrive.
The earliest high-impact clinical research in anesthesiology at Duke was conducted by Sarah J. Dent, MD, and focused on postoperative nausea and vomiting (PONV). The study of PONV remains an active area of research in the department today. Dr. Gan played an influential role in proving the efficacy of antiemetics and establishing PONV consensus guidelines, which now are an international standard of care. In addition to using acupuncture for the prevention of PONV and postoperative pain, Dr. Gan found acupuncture to be highly effective in reducing the severity and frequency of chronic headache. Drs. Gan and Peter S.A. Glass, MB ChB, who later went on to become chair of the Department of Anesthesiology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, also conducted pioneering work in the concept of perioperative goal-directed therapy and the use of bispectral index to monitor the depth of anesthesia—a technology now used around the world.
When David Watkins, MD, PhD, became chair in 1983, he launched bench research in the department and oversaw creation of the CRII Laboratory, which served as the department’s first Human Pharmacology Lab. In this lab, which was directed by Dr. Glass, numerous important concepts were developed. Examples include the context-sensitive half-time and the bispectral index, which ultimately helped to popularize the use of total intravenous anesthesia as a standard anesthetic technique in clinical anesthesia practice.
Debra A. Schwinn, MD, James B. Duke Professor of Anesthesiology, who served as director of Perioperative Genomics and vice chair for research for several years, played a critical role in developing bench research at Duke. Dr. Schwinn set a standard for NIH-funded research in the department, made fundamental discoveries in alpha adrenergic receptor signaling, and recruited several NIH-funded faculty members, including Madan Kwatra, PhD, Elliott Bennett-Guerrero, MD, James Reynolds, PhD, and Dr. Warner, to expand the department’s research programs. “She set a standard for excellence for research conduct and innovation that continues to permeate the entire department,” says Dr. Warner.
Following Dr. Schwinn’s lead, Dr. Warner has helped to develop the careers of countless world-class physician scientists across a broad range of medical specialties. A world-renowned neuro-anesthesiologist, Dr. Warner is known for his work in the mechanisms of stroke and brain protection, acute brain and spinal cord injury, and therapeutic interventions. By establishing a strong foundation in neuroanesthesia basic research at Duke, Dr. Warner has created a perfect environment in which to train and mold young physician scientists. In fact, Dr. Warner serves as the principal investigator for the department’s formal NIH-funded training grant designed to develop physician scientists at the fellowship level. Duke Anesthesiology has maintained this grant since 1996, when it became one of six anesthesiology departments in the U.S. to receive this honor. Thanks to former chair, Mark F. Newman, MD, Merel H. Harmel Professor of Anesthesiology and professor of medicine, and former vice chair for education, Catherine Kuhn, MD, this concept has since been extended to the residency with development of a pioneering American Board of Anesthesiology approved physician scientist track (Academic Career Enrichment Scholars) designed to substantively integrate formal research training with combined residency and fellowship clinical training over a five-year period.
For the past several years, the department has held an event known as Academic Evening to showcase ongoing research activities in the department. This event has become a model for similar events organized by most leading anesthesiology departments across the U.S. Academic Evening was the brainchild of Robert Sladen, MB ChB, but is now led by Dr. Warner. Katherine King, MD, and Cathleen Peterson-Layne, MD, PhD, MS, have also been instrumental in its success. The event now presents over 80 research projects each year and has an attendance of 150-200 persons.
The progress that we have made in research over a 40-year period is absolutely astounding. What is even more impressive, however, is the fact that we have seen a snowball effect. In recent years, the rate at which we are making these life-changing discoveries has multiplied. We have witnessed firsthand countless advances in surgical and critical care intervention that were unimaginable just a few years ago. Basic science in particular is exploding. The department has invested heavily in basic science research focused on mechanisms of chronic pain, a common affliction requiring breakthrough science to advance patient care. A rapidly emerging focus is on exploration of neural mechanisms of injury and pain. With a strong translational science program now in place, these discoveries lead to changes in how perioperative patients are managed, improving long-term outcome and quality of life. As the population ages and physicians see a higher number of patients with significant co-morbidities, the importance of anesthesia research will continue to mount.
In the future, the department will continue to push the limits of modern science through support of original research concepts, recruitment of world-class research faculty, and training the clinical and basic scientists of tomorrow. Together, we are advancing the future of patient care for generations to come.
Photo by Jared Lazarus (Duke Photography)