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Featured Doctor: Zhongcong Xie

Zhongcong Xie, MD, PhD

A 1977 bestseller sparked Dr. Zhongcong Xie's interest in the medical profession, but a conversation with a Mass General doctor proved to be a turning point in his career.

After reading Robin Cook's novel "Coma," Dr. Xie, Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School and director of the Geriatric Anesthesia Research Unit (GARU), became interested in medicine and "dreamed about joining Mass General."

Dr. Xie received his MD from Xuzhou Medical College, P.R. China, in 1985, and then moved to the U.S. in 1989. His research career began in 1989 with graduate studies in the laboratory of Dr. Randall L. Commissaris in the Pharmacology Department at Wayne State University in Detroit, where he received a PhD in 1994.

He completed post-doctoral training at Harvard Medical School in 1996 and joined Mass General in 1997. In 2000, he completed his anesthesia residency and been a staff member in the Department of Anesthesia, Critical Care and Pain Medicine at Mass General since then.

In 1999, the Chinese Society of Anesthesiologists and Xuzhou Medical College invited then-department chief Dr. Warren M. Zapol to give presentations in China, and Dr. Zapol asked Dr. Xie to accompany him as an interpreter.

"I was touched by how smart [Dr. Zapol] is and how much knowledge he has to cover pulmonary physiology and effects of nitric oxide," Dr. Xie said.

After the presentation, on the night train from Xuzhou to Beijing in the east plain of China, Dr. Zapol asked him, "Zhongcong, what are you going to do in the future?"

"I said, 'I don't know yet,'" Dr. Xie said. "Then he said, "Don't you want to be a physician-scientist?"

"I said, 'That's kind of my dream, but it's very remote. I don't know how soon I can be like you,'" Dr. Xie said.

"He said, 'If you keep going, you will be.' That kind of stuck."

With Dr. Zapol as a role model, he decided to take on both research and clinical work. Dr. Zapol encouraged him to study potential connections between anesthesia and Alzheimer's disease and suggested he collaborate with internationally known Alzheimer's researcher Dr. Rudy Tanzi.

When Dr. Xie told Dr. Tanzi he wanted to use an anesthesia machine to anesthetize cultured cells, he said, Dr. Tanzi told him, "It's a crazy idea, but I like it."

Remarkably, Dr. Xie initiated studies to assess effects of anesthetics on Alzheimer's disease neuropathogenesis and reported for the first time that anesthetics, including isoflurane and sevoflurane, can induce apoptosis and increase levels of β-amyloid protein (βA), which are hallmark features of Alzheimer's disease neuropathogenesis. These novel findings have made major contributions to the field of anesthesia neurotoxicity and Alzheimer's disease.

Dr. Xie and his colleagues have published several papers on the potential link between anesthesia and Alzheimer's disease neuropathogenesis. Some of Dr. Xie's research publications have been reported in BBC, Nature News, Boston Globe, USA Today and other news agencies.

Zhongcong Xie in the laboratoryHowever, research into a possible link between Alzheimer's and anesthesia is still in the early stages, and more research is needed before drawing any conclusions, Dr. Xie said.

"Post-operative cognition disorder (POCD), a disorder that impairs learning and memory after anesthesia and surgery, really affects patients' lives, but we don't know how or why they have it," Dr. Xie said. "I hope our research can soon illustrate the neuropathogenesis of POCD. Then we may find ways to prevent and treat it."

Today, Dr. Xie spends approximately 25% of his time on clinical work and 75% on research. In his clinical work, he specializes in both obstetric and thoracic anesthesia, including anesthesia care for lung transplantation patients. He also mentors residents in the operating room and gives annual lectures to CA-1 residents.

The study to assess effects of general anesthesia on aging brain function is a newer area of research interest. According to Dr. Xie, GARU's long-term mission is to improve the perioperative experience of the elderly patient undergoing surgery. The unit studies the potential effects of anesthetics on the neuropathogenesis of Alzheimer's disease and POCD.

Dr. Xie thanked many people for their encouragement, help and support, including his PhD advisor Dr. Randall L. Commissaris and post-doctoral mentor Dr. J. Allan Hobson. He truly appreciates all of the help and support of his mentor and friend Dr. Rudy Tanzi, he said.

He would also like to thank Drs. Jeanine Wiener-Kronish, Warren M. Zapol and Edward Lowenstein, as well as collaborators Drs. Neelakantan Sunder, Michele Szabo and Fumito Ichinose in the Department of Anesthesia, Critical Care and Pain Medicine and Drs. Dennis Burke and Emad Eskandar in the Department of Surgery at Mass General.

Dr. Xie also wishes to thank many people who helped his academic growth, including Drs. Jianren Mao, Carl E. Rosow, Keith W. Miller, Stuart A. Forman, Warren S. Sandberg, Peter Dunn, Paul Alfille, Wei Chao and Michael Bailin.

"I'd like to take this opportunity to thank many people who helped me in my growth. Without their help, I couldn't have this," he said.

Related Links

Faculty profile: Dr. Zhongcong Xie, MD, PhD

February 2008 Featured Doctor: Jean Kwo

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Department of Anesthesia,
Critical Care and Pain Medicine
Gray-Bigelow 444
55 Fruit Street
Boston, MA 02114

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