I’m a pediatric neurosurgeon. Here’s why I’m excited about the technology at our fingertips.

By Dr. Suresh Magge, medical director of neurosurgery at CHOC, and co-medical director of the CHOC Neuroscience Institute

Even as a child, I was fascinated with science, and it was ultimately the concept of using science and technology to help people that drew me to medicine. Today, I’m more excited and optimistic than ever about our ability as clinicians to provide best-in-class treatment to the patients we have the privilege to care for – particularly in a minimally invasive way.

While every effort is made for nonsurgical intervention, neurosurgery can often be the answer to saving or improving a child’s life. At CHOC, we are committed to creating a personalized treatment plan for each child, based on his or her needs.

When surgery is necessary, we strive to perform minimally invasive surgery whenever possible for the myriad benefits it brings our patients. Minimally invasive neurosurgery offers a smaller incision, less pain, minimal blood loss, shorter time spent in the operating room, shorter recovery time, shorter hospital stays and hidden scarring.

There are a number of tools that we use to make surgery less invasive. For example, we can use a small camera, called an endoscope, to look inside the brain without having to make a large incision. In some surgeries, we can use a specialized robot, called a ROSA robot, to allow for precise placement of catheters or electrodes, and to operate on tiny areas of the brain.

Here are four surgeries I’m excited about as a pediatric neurosurgeon. In each surgery, the child is asleep and does not feel any pain during surgery. 

  1. Endoscopic surgery — This option for many types of brain surgery allows the neurosurgeon to identify and treat conditions deep within the brain. A tube-like instrument with a camera is inserted into the brain through a small incision in the skull. In some cases, we can insert the tube through the nose and avoid making any incisions in the skull. This allows the neurosurgeon to have a clear picture of the tumor. Then, we use specialized surgical instruments to remove the tumor or damaged area. When possible, we use this technique for brain tumors, hydrocephalus, arachnoid cysts, craniosynostosis and skull base surgery. In treating craniosynostosis, endoscopic surgery can replace larger and more invasive surgeries but still achieve excellent outcomes.
  2. Responsive neurostimulation (RNS therapy) —The RNS system is similar to a heart pacemaker. By monitoring brain waves, it can detect seizure activity and then the system can respond to stop the seizure. What simultaneously amazes me and comforts families about this piece of technology is that patients can’t feel the device once it’s programmed. They don’t feel pain or anything unusual. Studies show RNS therapy reduces seizures and improves quality of life for most people who have used it.
  3. Deep brain stimulation This surgical treatment can offer lasting relief for many children who experience abnormal movements. CHOC offers DBS surgery for children with movement disorders of all degrees, including very complex cases. We are one of the only centers in the world to use a multiple stage approach that allows us to better target the correct areas of the brain, without the need to wake a child during surgery. DBS surgery at CHOC involves the placement of electrodes in the brain and wires that connect to a stimulator device implanted in the chest. The device is like a pacemaker; it sends impulses to the electrodes that tell the brain to stop or minimize uncontrolled movements throughout the body. Our specialized team places up to 12 electrodes, when needed, to target different areas of the brain to attain a good outcome. Surgeries take place in a state-of-the-art operating room at CHOC, which includes the latest navigation system for safer, more precise procedures and the ROSA 3D-mapping robotic system that aids surgeons in locating the exact areas to operate.
  4. Laser Interstitial Thermal Therapy (LITT) – Also known as laser ablation, this emerging technology provides pediatric patients with epilepsy and other conditions a range of benefits more traditional procedures can’t match and offers a potential solution for brain tumors that are hard to reach with traditional surgery. Instead of doing a craniotomy where a large incision is made to open up the skull, the neurosurgeon first makes a small hole in the skull just a few millimeters in a diameter. Then, under MRI visualization, the neurosurgeon can precisely position the laser probe and deliver heat to the specific area, which destroys the abnormal tissue. Laser ablation is especially useful in patients with tumors or seizure-generating abnormalities deep within the brain. Precision is essential in implanting the catheter, which guides the laser, since it allows the neurosurgeons to limit the thermal energy delivered to the tumor area only. Most LITT is minimally invasive and requires a short time in the operating room, and patients are often able to go home the next day.

Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to see firsthand how neurosurgery has advanced tremendously over the years, particularly through research and innovation.

I’ve had the privilege of studying and providing care at a number of institutions – Harvard, the National Institutes of Health, the University of Pennsylvania, Boston Children’s Hospital, and Children’s National Hospital (Washington, DC) — before coming to CHOC. At each of these institutions, it’s evident that through innovative technology and minimally invasive surgery, we as neurosurgeons can alleviate suffering and have a significant impact on the lives of children.

As a team here at CHOC, we always ask ourselves, “What is the best thing we can do for each child in the least invasive method, with the least amount of pain?” and then we try to do it in the most compassionate way possible.

It’s an exciting time in medicine, in part thanks to advances in technology — especially the pieces of technology that allow us to provide these minimally invasive surgical options that make a true impact on children and their families.

For more information about the CHOC Neuroscience Institute, click here.

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Ophthalmology division chief’s innovative vision continues to yield international awards

During his nearly 20 years as a pediatric ophthalmologist, Dr. Rahul Bhola has performed thousands of surgeries to correct strabismus, a condition in which the eyes are misaligned and do not track together.

And after each procedure, he feels an immense sense of gratitude for being able to profoundly affect the lives of children who, by the critical age of around 5, stand the best chance for successful outcomes before their brains get used to living comfortably with eye misalignment.

“What drives me is the patients we treat,” says Dr. Bhola, division chief of CHOC’s Specialists Ophthalmology and an associate clinical professor at UC Irvine School of Medicine. “The biggest thing is early diagnosis and prompt management, and with these surgical procedures, I can see the results right away. What can be better than that?”

Already the recipient of numerous national and international awards, Dr. Bhola, who joined CHOC in July 2017, continues to break new ground.

Recently, a paper he presented at a global conference of the World Society of Paediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus won top honors in the category of innovation and strabismus surgery.

During his presentation at the WSPOS’ World Wide Connect 2020, Dr. Bhola described a new approach to surgically correct strabismus in kids diagnosed with horizontal misalignment associated with minimal vertical misalignment.

Traditionally, most surgeons would surgically correct the horizontal misalignment and hope the vertical condition would work itself out. There’s a risk, Dr. Bhola explains, in surgically correcting for mild vertical misalignment. The procedure involves cutting off and repositioning a muscle in a different spot, which can result in an overcorrection – thus making things worse than better.

Dr. Bhola came up with the idea of performing what he calls graded marginal myotomy of inferior oblique. Instead of cutting and repositioning the muscle off the eyeball, he makes an incision to weaken the muscle avoiding the potential risks of overcorrection and by grading is able to adjust the amount of vertical strabismus correction.

“We use prisms to measure the degree of misalignment to better determine how much we need to weaken the muscle,” he explains.

Dr. Bhola says he’s performed the technique on some 60 patients with excellent results.

“It sounds very intuitive, it sounds very easy, but it had never been done before,” he says.

Dr. Bhola says the paper he presented at the conference is expected to be published soon in a major medical journal.

“This (surgery) will be a great addition to our armamentarium of strabismus surgery,” he says.

Fixing the problem in one procedure

Strabismus is prevalent in about 5-7 percent of the pediatric population, Dr. Bhola says. In most cases, the condition is the result of an abnormality of the neuromuscular control of eye movement. Many children who undergo surgery for strabismus need about two to three surgeries in their lifetime for the condition to be adequately corrected, he adds.

Not so with his recently developed procedure.

“That’s one of the beauties of this surgery,” says Dr. Bhola, explaining that he’s able to correct both horizontal and vertical misalignment in one procedure.

“The chances of achieving a good outcome is best with the first surgery,” Dr. Bhola says.” In my experience, it’s best to be aggressive and adequately correct both horizontal and vertical misalignment in order to get the best possible surgical outcome.”

When Dr. Bhola joined CHOC a little more than three years ago, he was tasked with developing CHOC’s Ophthalmology Division into a destination center in Orange County and beyond.

He’s well on his way.

In 2019, CHOC’s Ophthalmology Division saw 5,500 patients (equating to 8,000 patient visits) with a 90-percent-plus patient satisfaction rate, Dr. Bhola says.

“We’re seeing exponential growth,” adds Dr. Bhola, who plans to grow the division to five or so specialists over the next few years. Currently, the division has two.

After graduating from medical school in 1996 and completing his first Ophthalmology residency from University of Delhi, India, Dr. Bhola further pursued another residency in Ophthalmology in the US. He went on to do his Pediatric Ophthalmology fellowship from two prestigious ophthalmology training programs. He says he always wanted to be a pediatrician and later fell in love with ophthalmology, and being able to practice Ophthalmology at CHOC, a world class pediatric hospital, gave him the best of both worlds.

“This is something I’m passionate about,” he says.

To learn more about Ophthalmology at CHOC, click here.

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Recent Advancements Shape the Future of Sarcoma Care

The rarity of sarcomas and their large number of diverse histologies have made this group of cancers very challenging to manage. At the Hyundai Cancer Institute at CHOC, collaborative research, experimental treatment protocols and surgical advancements are setting the stage to change that.

“The sarcoma and solid tumor field hasn’t advanced much in the last 50 to 60 years, unfortunately,” says Dr. Elyssa Rubin, pediatric oncologist at CHOC. “But we’re making exciting progress that will hopefully improve the care pediatric patients with bone and soft tissue sarcomas receive in the future.”

Dr. Elyssa Rubin, pediatric oncologist at CHOC

As a member of the Children’s Oncology Group (COG), CHOC is involved in a number of clinical trials that seek to improve the outcome for children with cancer. The international collaboration allows for the compilation of larger data sets that can be used to improve both research and treatments.

“Currently, we are working with COG to harmonize all the clinical trial research from the last 50 to 60 years and creating common data dictionaries so we’re all speaking the same language and being consistent with our methods,” says Dr. Rubin. “Sharing data and having this larger database gives us a better understanding of what’s working, what isn’t and what to target with our treatments. Our ultimate goal is to have our collective data in one central location so we can work together and hopefully, make more advances. This collaboration is what’s needed if we’re really going to make progress.”

Besides her role as principal investigator in clinical trials, Dr. Rubin is researching an experimental maintenance therapy protocol for sarcoma patients.

“I’ve been fascinated by applying the advancements made in leukemia treatment to my sarcoma patients,” Dr. Rubin says. “Leukemia patients are treated with aggressive therapy upfront and then they go into a maintenance phase where they’re taking their medicine over an extended period of time. Over the last seven or eight years, I’ve used a similar approach with my high-risk sarcoma patients, which isn’t the standard of care. The encouraging trend I’ve noticed is a change in the pattern of their relapse and a longer extension of time until they relapse, which tells me this protocol is working to keep their disease under control.”

While it’s still early and more research is needed, Dr. Rubin says her protocol is picking up interest within the bone and tumor committee, and larger studies will be conducted that will have patients follow this protocol for at least six months.

As Dr. Rubin continues her research and the further investigation of her maintenance therapy protocol, other advances are being utilized at CHOC today, particularly in surgical technologies for the treatment of bone and soft tissue sarcomas.

“Recent advances in surgical options help us achieve our goal of preserving as much function as possible so kids can get back to being kids and doing what they love to do,” says Dr. Amir Misaghi, pediatric orthopaedic oncology surgeon at CHOC. “With advances in growing-type prostheses for limb salvage and restoration, we are able to meet this goal now more than in the past.”

Dr. Amir Misaghi, pediatric orthopaedic oncology surgeon at CHOC

3D printing is also revolutionizing the field of orthopaedic oncology, allowing surgeons to print custom bone models for surgical planning.

“When you do so much preoperative planning, the actual surgical time can be minimized,” says Dr. Misaghi. “We’re also using 3D-printed custom cutting guides to help make the surgery as precise as possible, which helps preserve as much of the patient’s native tissue as possible.”

When it comes to the bone and soft tissue sarcoma program at CHOC, Dr. Rubin and Dr. Misaghi emphasize the robust team and comprehensive capabilities.

“Between oncology, orthopaedic surgery, plastic surgery and radiology, as well as general surgery and pathology, we really have the full package here at CHOC,” Dr. Misaghi says. “We are fully equipped to take care of all benign and malignant bone and soft tissue tumors, and we all focus specifically on pediatrics.”

Our Care and Commitment to Children Has Been Recognized

CHOC Children’s Hospital was named one of the nation’s best children’s hospitals by U.S. News & World Report in its 2020-21 Best Children’s Hospitals rankings and ranked in the cancer specialty.

Learn how CHOC’s pediatric oncology treatments, expertise and support programs preserve childhood for children in Orange County, Calif., and beyond.

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Research Shows Endoscopic Strip Craniectomy is Strong Alternative to Open Approaches for Craniosynostosis

Minimally invasive endoscopic strip craniectomy offers a strong alternative for infants with craniosynostosis, according to a growing body of research in pediatric neurosurgery.

“The data has been clear that this is a very effective surgery with excellent results, and it’s less invasive than the traditional open approaches for treating craniosynostosis,” says Dr. Suresh Magge, medical director of neurosurgery at CHOC and co-medical director of the CHOC Neuroscience Institute. “A lot of the research that we and other groups have done shows that results are either as good or can even be better in certain aspects of facial growth compared to open vault reconstruction.”

Dr. Suresh Magge
Dr. Suresh Magge, medical director of neurosurgery at CHOC and co-medical director of the CHOC Neuroscience Institute.

Dr. Magge’s research on the topic has included:

Traditional surgery for craniosynostosis is an open cranial vault reconstruction, in which a surgical team takes apart the skull in order to reshape the skull plates. If craniosynostosis is diagnosed early enough – preferably before four months of age – minimally invasive endoscopic surgery can correct this condition. Small incisions are made and, using a camera, the fused portions of the skull are removed.

While both the traditional cranial vault reconstruction and the minimally invasive surgery can offer excellent surgical results, the minimally invasive approach generally involves less blood loss and swelling, smaller incisions, reduced need for blood transfusions, less time under anesthesia and shorter hospital stays. Pediatric patients usually go home the day after surgery. Once surgery is completed, the patient is fitted for a cranial molding helmet he or she must wear for a few months that helps guide the skull correction over time.

“We have an outstanding craniofacial team, including neurosurgeons, plastic surgeons and maxillofacial surgeons, here at CHOC, and we strive to offer an individualized approach to each patient,” Dr. Magge says. “Physicians need to know that craniosynostosis requires an early diagnosis so that parents have the option of the minimally invasive surgery. At the same time, we want to give parents different options when it comes to surgery.”

Dr. Magge recently joined CHOC after an 11-year tenure as a pediatric neurosurgeon at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., where he started the medical center’s minimally invasive craniosynostosis program and was the director of neurosurgery fellowship training. He completed his neurosurgery residency training at the University of Pennsylvania and his pediatric neurosurgery fellowship training at Boston Children’s Hospital.

While Dr. Magge has a wide-ranging clinical practice, his special clinical and research interests include craniosynostosis, brain and spinal tumors, especially diffuse intrinsic pontine gliomas, and pediatric neurovascular disease, including arteriovenous malformation and Moyamoya disease. In his new role at CHOC, Dr. Magge looks forward to contributing to the growth of CHOC’s neurosurgical programs, including the brain tumor program, neurovascular program, epilepsy program, robotic surgeries and more. 

“It’s such an exciting time here at CHOC, from how we’re building and growing our programs to driving clinical innovation, as well as training the next generation of pediatric neurosurgeons through our affiliation with the University of California, Irvine,” Dr. Magge says. “We’re always asking ourselves, ‘What’s the best thing we can do for each child in the least invasive manner with the least amount of pain?’ and then doing so in a compassionate manner.”

Our Care and Commitment to Children Has Been Recognized

CHOC Children’s Hospital was named one of the nation’s best children’s hospitals by U.S. News & World Report in its 2020-21 Best Children’s Hospitals rankings and ranked in the neurology/neurosurgery specialty.

USNWR Neurology and Neurosurgery award

Learn how CHOC’s neuroscience expertise, coordinated care, innovative programs and specialized treatments preserve childhood for children in Orange County, Calif., and beyond.

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MRI-Guided Laser Ablation with Stereotactic Assistance Targets Epilepsy, Tumors

Laser interstitial thermal therapy (LITT), or laser ablation, is among the latest advancements in minimally invasive neurosurgery, allowing surgeons to reach difficult areas of the brain — and offering less risk to patients at the same time.

“Instead of performing a craniotomy, which entails making a large incision and opening up the skull, we place a probe through a small hole in the skull a few millimeters in diameter,” says Dr. Joffre Olaya, pediatric neurosurgeon at CHOC. “Then, under MRI visualization, we deliver heat to the specific area, which destroys the abnormal tissue. Laser ablation is especially useful in patients with small seizure foci or tumors, particularly if they are deep.”

Dr. Joffre Olaya, pediatric neurosurgeon at CHOC

The benefits this minimally invasive approach provides to patients are especially welcoming. “For a craniotomy, patients will be in the hospital for three to five days, in the ICU most likely for a day or two, and they’ll experience discomfort from the skin and muscles on the head,” Dr. Olaya says. “With laser ablation, patients typically go home within a day or two and recover pretty quickly. They also experience less blood loss, pain and side effects overall. Also, laser ablation doesn’t prevent patients from having another procedure. If the tumor is still growing or the seizures are still continuing after ablation, I can go back and perform another laser ablation or a craniotomy.”

To increase surgical precision and accuracy when ablating brain tumors, deep lesions and tissue in the brain where seizures occur, Dr. Olaya employs a ROSA™ (robotic stereotactic assistance) robot.

“We obtain preoperative imaging studies and load those into the ROSA system, which allows us to plan the entry point and trajectory so we can precisely place the laser. This precision helps us to not only locate and effectively ablate our target, but avoid hitting blood vessels or causing unintended damage to surrounding tissues,” Dr. Olaya says. “We were the first pediatric center on the West Coast to have this technology. We use ROSA for multiple conditions, including patients with epilepsy and oncology patients with tumors.”

ROSA’s precision also helps minimize some risks commonly associated with surgery. “ROSA is an amazing tool that yields many benefits for our patients, including less time under anesthesia in the operating room,” Dr. Olaya says. “It also reduces blood loss and risk of infections.”

Although CHOC is at the forefront utilizing the latest technologies to best treat its patients in a minimally invasive manner when possible, Dr. Olaya says CHOC’s team approach to patient care is what sets it apart from other centers in the region.

“I’m really excited that CHOC is investing in this newer technology and it’s available here to provide to our patients, but our team mentality and how well we work together is crucial. Our epileptologists, radiologists, neuropsychologists, all of us really work well together as a team to identify the best candidates for this technology and to provide the best outcomes for our patients.”

Our Care and Commitment to Children Has Been Recognized

CHOC Children’s Hospital was named one of the nation’s best children’s hospitals by U.S. News & World Report in its 2020-21 Best Children’s Hospitals rankings and ranked in the neurology/neurosurgery specialty.

Learn how CHOC’s neuroscience expertise, coordinated care, innovative programs and specialized treatments preserve childhood for children in Orange County, Calif., and beyond.