Al Hassanein, MD, MMSc, assistant professor of plastic surgery, was recently named the 2020 recipient of the American Association of Plastic Surgeons Academic Scholarship Award. Dr. Hassanein earned the award with his proposal of "Tissue Nanotransfection Induced Lymphovenous Shunt in Murine Lymphedema Model."
The AAPS/PSF Academic Scholar Award provides a two-year faculty research scholarship of $60,000 over a two-year period beginning July 1, 2020. The grant is awarded to one or two plastic surgeons annually around the country and assists a plastic surgeon in establishing an independent research program to help solve a clinical problem in plastic surgery.
We sat down with Hassanein to talk about the award, and the research he plans to conduct through its support.
What made you apply for this scholarship?
In general, many academic plastic surgeons who are dedicated to research in addition to clinical care apply for this grant. This scholarship gives the institution, in this case, IU, and the research program national recognition and financial support. This increases awareness of the clinical problem as well. I specialize in breast reconstruction after breast cancer, and many breast cancer survivors develop lymphedema. Lymphedema is life-long arm arm swelling due to the damage of the lymphatic system after breast cancer surgery, and there's no cure for it. We are studying novel techniques in the lab to treat and prevent lymphedema and learn more about the cause.
How will this grant help support your research?
There's a financial award of $60,000 to support the research. There is a lot of progress that we will be able to make because of this grant. This will potentially also open the door for other grants like the ones the National Institutes of Health (NIH) offer to further support this research endeavor.
What got you interested in researching lymphedema?
I spent two years doing a research fellowship during my training at Havard Medical School. Lymphedema was one of my areas of study. After my plastic surgery training, I spent a year at Johns Hopkins in a microsurgery fellowship which included learning new microsurgical techniques for breast reconstruction and lymphedema. During that time, I'd see these patients with this disease and how much it affected their daily life. Unfortunately, not only is there no cure for lymphedema, there is no consistent effective treatment that works all the time. The disease affects 5-10 million Americans. I was inspired to try to find better ways to treat this disease.
You are the only surgeon at IU School of Medicine who specializes in the surgical treatment of lymphedema. What is that surgery specialty?
Lymphatic surgeon is a subspecialty of microsurgery. Microsurgery is when a surgeon uses a microscope to do different things such as transfer tissue from one part of the body to another. For lymphedema, there's a couple of new microsurgical treatments where we transfer lymph nodes from a healthy part of the body to the area where they may have been damaged due to surgery. We connect an artery and vein to support the lymph nodes or we bypass damaged lymph nodes by connecting these tiny lymphatics in the arm into veins directly—these two have only been available within the past few years. These lymphatic vessels can be very small, sometimes less than 0.8 mm, and the technique is referred to as supermicrosurgery. The latest lymphatic surgery technique is a preventative approach where immediate lymphatic reconstruction is performed at the time of breast cancer treatment to decrease the risk of lymphedema occurring. This technique is called “LYMPHA”
So what is your current research trying to achieve?
I've always been passionate about trying to treat lymphedema and prevent it. This research will help move the field forward since there hasn’t been significant progress in solving this disease in a long time. What we are looking to do is to use groundbreaking nanotechnology that my mentor Chandan Sen, PhD, Director of the Indiana Center for Regenerative Medicine and Engineering invented a technology called TNT, which safely delivers genetic material directly to a particular group of cells to help them transform into other cells. I am closely collaborating Mithun Sinha, PhD, assistant research professor of surgery who uses the TNT nanotechnology to ultimately be more effectively at preventing lymphedema through nonsurgical, and a minimally invasive measure.
How will all of this help improve the education of residents?
Lymphedema is something that plastic surgeons and general surgeons frequently see because it’s common with cancer treatment, especially breast cancer. Because of my training in microsurgical techniques, we can train our residents and fellows on microsurgical techniques to improve lymphedema. This allows our residents and fellows to apply these techniques in their practice or get exposure to what is possible to improve lymphedema. But I hope that we find a better way to prevent and treat lymphedema through our research program to make our current methods for treating lymphedema obsolete.