A conversation with Daniel C. Lu, MD, PhD
In this issue, Spine Surgery Today poses five questions to Daniel C. Lu, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of neurosurgery and orthopedic surgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is a member of the UCLA Spine Center in Santa Monica, Calif. Dr. Lu’s clinical focus is on minimally invasive techniques in the surgical management of degenerative, traumatic, neoplastic and spinal disorders. He focuses his NIH-funded research efforts on elucidating the spinal cord circuitry and neuromodulation of the spinal cord to enable function after injury states.
Dr. Lu went to medical school at UC San Diego School of Medicine and completed his neurosurgical residency at UC San Francisco’s Department of Neurosurgery. He also completed a fellowship in minimally invasive and complex spine surgery at Semmes-Murphey Neurologic & Spine Institute in Memphis, Tenn. He has received numerous awards, including the Outcomes Research Award from the American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS)/Congress of Neurological Surgeons Joint Section of Spine and Peripheral Nerves in 2010 and the Synthes Craniofacial and Brain Trauma Research Award for AANS in 2009.
Spine Surgery Today: What was the defining moment that led you to your field?
Daniel C. Lu, MD, PhD: As a neuroscience graduate student in an MD-PhD program studying neurodegeneration, I thought I was destined to become a neurologist and study the molecular basis of Alzheimer’s disease in the laboratory. This plan was still in effect up until my last clerkship rotation in neurosurgery in which I attended a craniotomy for tumor resection case. I was immediately drawn to the lore of the operating theater and immediacy of treatment and response; and the seemingly heroic figure represented by the neurosurgeon. In looking back, I realize now that this is a somewhat naïve view of the field, but I am still drawn to the meditative and contemplative state that an intricate microsurgical case can bring.
Spine Surgery Today: What area of research in spine surgery most interests you right now? Why?
Lu: The current state of spinal surgery research is focused on alignment and biomechanics, which has utmost importance, but it is only the start of the treatment and recovery process of spinal diseases. To me, the research field of spinal cord physiology and circuitry is fascinating and holds transformative potential. The spinal cord is a highly complex and “smart” organ, which has the ability to learn and retain memory; and complex function like locomotion is encoded within the spinal cord with little to no input from the brain. My laboratory is beginning to decipher the circuitry and innate capacity of the spinal cord and to translate these findings to restore function following spinal cord injury.
Spine Surgery Today: Who has had the greatest influence on your career?
Lu: The way I am approaching the treatment of the spinal cord disorders in the laboratory is heavily influenced by V. Reggie Edgerton, PhD. I met Reggie, a scientist with a distinguished career in neurobiology and locomotion, at the start of my career at UCLA. He opened my eyes to the concept of spinal cord modulation and we have since enjoyed an immensely stimulating and productive collaboration. I would say that I am having the best time of my life.
Spine Surgery Today: What advice would you offer a medical school student today?
Lu: I would tell the student to pursue her or his passion and not simply go into a field that is most lucrative or in vogue. By the end of training, the field’s compensation rate may not be what it was when one started, especially with the financial uncertainty associated with the Affordable Care Act for physicians. Importantly, the work will become complete drudgery if one is not passionate about it. I would also advise the student to keep a “big picture” view or higher level of thinking regarding scientific or medical questions, and not be constrained by the boundaries of the specialty or field. Also devote attention to all the information that is presented in the course work, even in fields that you have no interest in, as it may be something that will spark new ideas for possible disease cures in the future.
Spine Surgery Today: Have you ever been fortunate enough to witness or to have been part of medical history in the making? If so, please explain.
Lu: During the last year of my residency at UCSF, I witnessed Michael Lawton, MD, perform his 2000th aneurysm clipping — he has since eclipsed that mark and is somewhere past his 3000th aneurysm. He arguably is one of the most accomplished and prolific vascular neurosurgeons of our time. Although I may not have realized it at the time, it likely is a feat that will not be replicated due to the relative obsolescence of the procedure to more novel and less invasive treatments, such as endovascular coiling. There is an artistic and heroic nature with open aneurysm surgery as it demands the utmost microsurgical dexterity and acumen, and millimeters truly separate life from death. Also, it teaches us surgical procedures have a life span of their own, supplanted by newer, more effective techniques.
Disclosure: Lu has no relevant financial disclosures.