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November 4, 2008



How’s this for cool? Silver Spring-based SimQuest is developing the first 3-D open-surgical simulator, backed by grants from NIH, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the National Science Federation (quite the trifecta of investors). The simulator will give novice docs a place to steady their scalpel before starting on patients, says company founder Dr. Howard Champion (best name we’ve heard in a while).


The machine uses physics-based surgical simulation software, along with force-feedback robotics (so cutting into an arm feels like cutting into an arm, yikes) and a stereoscopic screen for accuracy. The doctors use real medical tools connected to sensors that record every motion for review once surgery is complete. “This is worlds above all other simulators because it takes the place of early operating room training, so the doctor can make mistakes without anyone getting killed,” Howard says. The seven-year-old, 30-person privately-funded company is also working on simulators for orthopedics, neurology, and emergency care.


Howard is best known for creating the MedSTAR Trauma Unit at the Washington Hospital Center. The English-born doctor started early in his career working in civilian trauma centers and recognized the challenge of training military doctors for the types of injuries found in battle. “We trained them in emergency rooms in D.C. and L.A., treating late-night gunshot wounds because that’s as close as we had.”


We were determined to get a good seat at Georgetown’s recent ’08 med school reunion. Thing is, we’re not Hoyas, so getting registered would’ve required misdirection. Luckily, our intern, Gerardo, is a G’town senior. We taught him how to look “journalist-y” and sent him on his way. Also, if stopped, we realized “intern” also sounds sort of medical. Above, he tracked down Father Kevin FitzGerald (MD and professor) to ask about life as a Jesuit medicine man. Kevin tells us combining religion with science is a long-standing Jesuit tradition and says the affiliation guided him to his current position as a human cloning and genetic testing expert.


Here with med school Executive Dean Howard Federoff, we tossed Kevin a softball and asked how ethics and genetics might conflict. He referenced one study that suggests religious affinity actually has a biological explanation. If true, and we could isolate a religion gene, he asked, would we treat it like a disease? Alas, the question was hypothetical. When we posed it back to him, Kevin said the jury is still out on that study; however, if Kevin does think religious affinity is a disease, he certainly seems to be enjoying it.


Howard led a panel discussion on “Ethical Considerations of Systems Medicine.” Here’s the definition we gleaned: Systems medicine uses genes and proteins to predict future diseases and tailor treatment to the individual. Its advantage is it leaves behind conventional approaches that, for example, would lead to a young AIDS patient with streptococcal pneumonia receiving identical antibiotic treatment as an elderly woman with the same infection. In systems medicine, the person, not the disease, gets the attention. Federoff kicked things off by letting everyone know he was hired on April Fools Day 2007, and he’s still waiting for Georgetown to tell him it’s a joke.

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