Medical School Alumnus of the Year leads Neurological Surgery department at Weill Cornell
Dr. Stieg with President and CEO John R. Raymond, Sr., MD, and Dean of the Medical School and Executive Vice President Joseph E. Kerschner, MD '90, Fel '98.
In a field historically defined by prowess in the operating room and now driven largely by technology, Philip E. Stieg, MD ’83, PhD, has helped build a program in New York City that maintains the traditional art of neurosurgery while harnessing technological innovation to advance the field. Through scholarly work, translational research and an enduring focus on the health and well-being of patients, Dr. Stieg has helped to define the scope of excellence in his field. In his 13 years as Professor and Chairman of Neurological Surgery at Weill Cornell Medical College, Dr. Stieg has been recognized worldwide for his leadership and skill as a neuroscientist practitioner.
Neurosurgery itself has progressed in striking ways, particularly noticeable to someone with a 30-year career in medicine.
“When I began, we were just starting micro-neurosurgery,” Dr. Stieg said. “That was during the advent of the microscope in the operating room. Now, we use advanced technology that was unthinkable then – three-dimensional visualization, molecular neurosurgery and gene therapy using stereotactic techniques. It’s astounding and exciting to see how far the field has changed and progressed.”
Dr. Stieg, who also serves as Neurosurgeon-in-Chief at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, has earned an international reputation in cerebrovascular disorders and skull base surgery. He is a past chairman of the Joint Sections of Cerebrovascular Surgery of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons and Congress of Neurological Surgeons and past president of the Society of University Neurosurgeons. He was recognized this year by the Medical College of Wisconsin/Marquette Medical Alumni Association as the 2013 Medical School Alumnus of the Year.
“It’s heartwarming, and it’s an honor to be appreciated by your peers and the institution where you trained,” he said. “The Medical College of Wisconsin laid the foundation for everything I’ve been able to do since.”
An expert in cerebrovascular disorders and skull base surgery, Philip E. Stieg, MD ’83, PhD, performs more than 200 surgeries a year.
At Weill Cornell, Dr. Stieg has assembled a talented faculty of neurosurgeons and neuroscientists who have accomplished many important “firsts” in medicine. Colleagues in his department were the first to administer gene therapy to the brain for Parkinson’s disease in 2003, and in 2009 accomplished the first infusion of Avastin directly into a glioblastoma tumor, bypassing the blood-brain barrier. In 2012, his pediatric neurosurgical team launched a groundbreaking clinical trial, testing convection-enhanced delivery for inoperable brain tumors. Dr. Stieg’s spine team is collaborating with Cornell University’s Biomedical Engineering Department in Ithaca to develop living, tissue-engineered replacement discs for patients with degenerative disc disease.
In 2011, Dr. Stieg officially launched the Weill Cornell Brain and Spine Center, which formalized the integrative, team-based approach he had helped develop for the treatment of patients with neurological disease. The group is considered a national leader in minimally invasive surgery for the brain and spine.
Many innovations introduced by Dr. Stieg have advanced education and collaboration. When one of his department’s neurosurgeons proposed the idea of a Brain Tumor Biotech Summit in 2011, Dr. Stieg worked to facilitate the gathering of leading neuroscientists, biotechnology firms and venture capitalists. He said that scientists often present their research at meetings, but that seldom results in a translation to new tools and treatments. The Brain Tumor Biotech Summit was conducted under the premise that it would enlighten all groups about the process of technology transfer while also establishing mutually beneficial relationships, potentially leading to new funding sources for promising research.
“Through the Summit, we hoped venture capital would understand the complexities of developing drugs or techniques,” he said. “We then hoped science would understand the limitations of the business world and how they are constrained. I think few fully understand the complexity of bringing a tool or drug or technology all the way through design, development and implementation to the market.”
Dr. Stieg hopes to expand the Summit’s scope to include such areas as stroke and vascular disease, spine and movement disorders.
“I love working with graduate students, medical students and residents. Education and research are the driving forces in our field.”
Collaboration and education
With his driving philosophy of an open source model with collaboration in research and education, Dr. Stieg launched the Surgical Innovations Lab in 2010. This state-of-the-art facility integrates 3-D visualization, virtual reality and computerized simulation with hands-on cadaver dissection to teach advanced neurosurgical procedures and build visuospatial skills. Residents, fellows and students around the world have access to the lab through real-time video conferencing.
The international reach of the Surgical Innovations Lab is just one example of Dr. Stieg’s global perspective. His department helps serve the mission of Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar, established in 2001 as the first medical school in that country, and neurosurgery faculty travel regularly to Tanzania, where Weill Cornell has established another medical school, the Weill Bugando University College of Health Sciences. Regular delegations to Tanzania from the New York campus—this year including Dr. Stieg—bring new technologies and education to a country that has only three neurosurgeons for 4 million people. Faculty in Tanzania are also invited to participate in CME courses in New York at no cost.
“This department takes a strong view on international education,” Dr. Stieg said. “For developing countries, we feel strongly that it’s our responsibility and our privilege to make sure health care is as good as it can be in those countries.”
The science of surgery
Dr. Stieg considers basic science key to advancing neurosurgery, instilled from his days earning a PhD in anatomy and neuroscience from Albany Medical College of Union University before entering medical school.
Dr. Stieg’s research has focused largely on cerebral protection and restorative function. His early work involved ion transport in astroglia following head injury, which helped give doctors a better grasp of the clinical management of acute head trauma. His laboratory was one of the first to develop and characterize primary cultures of astroglial cells.
In the next phase of his research career, he was involved in the development of drugs that reduced stroke volume. One outcome of this research was a better understanding of the NMDA receptor, which plays an important role in the transport of ions across cell membranes after stroke and trauma. In recent years, Dr. Stieg’s research efforts have had a more clinical emphasis, exploring novel approaches to skull base surgery.
Dr. Stieg takes particular pride and enjoyment in teaching his young residents and mentoring his faculty with a focus on translational research and technology.
“Developing and recruiting talent is a critical aspect of being a successful leader in medicine,” Dr. Stieg said. The ability to convey the importance of your vision is also very important in today’s complex academic environment. One has to lead with integrity, foster creative ideas and drive a vision for ensuring the success of the department while staying true to our mission of delivering excellence in patient care every day.”
In memory of Dr. Meils
For Philip E. Stieg, MD ’83, PhD, one of the lasting impressions from his time at the Medical College of Wisconsin was the camaraderie of classmates and the respect they showed for one another. He felt a particular kinship with Carol M. Meils, MD ’83, because of their similarities in age as well as their approach to education.
“Carol and I were two of the older people in class. She came from a nursing background, and I came from a PhD background,” he said. “The memorable thing was the clinical interaction I had with her, sharing rotations on surgery and medicine. At some institutions, students would compete with each other in a negative way. At the Medical College, it really fostered not competition but collegiality with a mutual pursuit of excellence. Carol was one individual who exemplified that.”
Dr. Meils went on to have a distinguished career in cardiovascular medicine. Sadly, she died April 1, 2012, at age 59 after an eight-year battle with breast cancer.
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