The February Eichler seminar was an exemplary glimpse into the interdisciplinary partnership between surgical oncologist Richard J. Barth Jr., MD and biomedical engineer Venkat Krishnaswamy, PhD to improve the efficiency of breast cancer removal surgery.
The seminar kicked off with a reminder by Dr. Manish Mishra, “why does this all matter?”: As a physician, you can use your voice where it matters by advocating for a patient. For Drs. Barth and Krishnaswamy, it was responding to the fear following a breast cancer diagnosis.
Dr. Barth took the seminar attendees through a brief introduction to the beginnings of Cairn Surgical, the joint venture that Drs. Barth and Krishnaswamy created to proliferate their innovation: The Breast Cancer Locator. In his work, Dr. Barth noticed the inefficiencies in breast cancer tumor removal surgeries. The goal of breast-conserving surgery is to remove the cancerous mass with negative margins while minimizing the loss of healthy breast tissue. However, 20-25% of the time, in trying to balance removal of the tumor with conserving health tissue, a positive margin results. This means that Dr. Barth has to call the patient to return to surgery to remove the additional tumor margin. This got him thinking, what are ways we can improve this surgery to increase the precision of breast-conserving surgery?
Enter Dr. Krishnaswamy. Dr. Krishnaswamy had been studying to receive his PhD as a biomedical engineer at Dartmouth on a completely different project. But he was intrigued by this issue posed by Dr. Barth, and he was uniquely positioned to see this clinical problem from an engineering lens. Dr. Krishnaswamy quickly became engrossed with this project, finding an “innate satisfaction” in working in healthcare. In his partnership with Dr. Barth, the Breast Cancer Locator (BCL) device was created. The BCL is a 3D printed cast that fits over the breast that assists surgeons in projecting the area of breast cancer mass removal.
The success of this project highlighted two overarching themes: a “stick-to-it-ness” and an open-mindedness, as Dr. Mishra described it. The identification of a problem to the creation of a solution is no easy task and requires time and dedication through the ups and downs of innovation to succeed. In addition, this collaboration was only possible through the open-mindedness of both parties not just to the unique perspectives of other disciplines, but also a willingness to be humble and recognize the limitations of their own specialties alone. From there, they could see the synergistic impact on improving care for these breast cancer patients that this interdisciplinary approach could have.
These skills of “stick-to-it-ness” and open-mindedness are things we can all practice in our day-to-day lives. Whether it be through the ups and downs of an organic chemistry course or the willingness to ask for help when we need it, we will all be stronger future healthcare providers for doing so.