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New Help for Trauma Victims

This plastic surgeon takes pride in his day-to-day clinical work while remaining excited about his research into a new class of therapeutics
By Cheryl England

With dual certifications in plastic surgery and biomedical engineering, Raphael Lee, MD, is not your typical physician. Currently a Paul S. and Aileen T. Russell Professor at the University of Chicago, he holds appointments in plastic surgery, dermatology, molecular medicine, translational medicine and organismal biology. He also directs the Laboratory for Molecular Regeneration at the University. Dr. Lee has focused much of his key efforts on applying engineering science methods to advance clinical surgery.

Thirty years ago Dr. Lee and several colleagues discovered that electrical shock injury does more than just produce heat burns—it also damages skeletal muscle and nerves through the direction of action of electrical forces on the structural integrity of cellular membranes. Soon after that discovery, the group was the first to demonstrate that certain commonly used block copolymer surfactants could accelerate repair to those damaged muscles and nerves. “Now I’m focusing on getting those polymers into pharmaceutical therapies that can be administered in the first hour after a traumatic injury such as motor vehicle accidents and military trauma to improve outcomes,” he says. “It will be a whole new class of therapeutics.”

Dr. Lee is currently collaborating with the FDA to accelerate development. To greater facilitate collaboration with specialists in the Chicago area, the Chicago Electrical Trauma Research Institute was formed, where he serves on the advisory board.

Indeed, Dr. Lee’s research group is widely recognized for characterizing the molecular biophysics of cell injuries caused by electrical shock, thermal trauma and intense radiation injury. In 1999, Dr. Lee directed a program that was part of the World Health Organization’s efforts to determine the health impact of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. “The goal was to quantify the value of certain public health protection strategies in the event of a major nuclear accident,” he says.

Dr. Lee is also active in a wide variety of professional societies in both the medical and engineering fields. “At first it might seem that medicine and engineering are quite different,” he says. “But they are actually quite similar since both use knowledge of chemistry, biology and physics to solve system problems. The main distinction is that physicians take direct responsibility for patient care.”

It’s that attitude toward engineering solutions that makes Dr. Lee believe that complex health system problems can be solved. “I don’t know that there are unsolvable medical problems,” he says. “That’s not to understate the magnitude of the challenge ahead. I look forward to reaching the threshold beyond which increased use of technology reduces the cost of health care. That is the goal.”

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