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Dr. Michael Hsieh's clay shield

Innovative urologist Michael Hsieh takes unbeaten path

Dr. Michael Hsieh's clay shield

For an elementary school art project, Michael H. Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D., was instructed to fashion a coat of arms out of clay. In addition to panels for truth, justice and Taiwan, in the shield’s M.D. panel, a snake twists around a rod, like the staff for Asclepius, a Greek god associated with healing.

Children’s urologist Michael H. Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D., knew from age 10 that he would become a doctor. Proof is at his parents’ home. For an elementary school art project, students were instructed to fashion a coat of arms out of clay. In addition to panels for truth, justice and Taiwan, in the shield’s M.D. panel, a snake twists around a rod, like the staff for Asclepius, a Greek god associated with healing.

“I liked science. When I can use it to help patients, that is very rewarding,” says Dr. Hsieh, the first doctor in his family.

These days, Dr. Hsieh’s Twitter profile serves as a digital coat of arms, describing him as “tinker, tailor,” #UTI #biologist, epithelial #immunologist, helminthologist and #urologist.

Tinker/tailor is shorthand for the mystery drama, “Tinker Tailor Solider Spy,” he explains, adding that the “tinker” part also refers “to the fact that I am always questioning things, and science is about experimentation, trying to seek answers to questions.”

While still in medical school during a rotation Dr. Hsieh saw a bladder operation on a young child and thought it was “amazing.” That experience in part inspired Dr. Hsieh to become a urologist and bladder scientist. His training in immunology and study of the bladder naturally led him to study urinary tract infections and parasitic worms that affect the urinary tract. In addition, thanks to R01 funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Dr. Hsieh is co-principal investigator with Axel Krieger, University of Maryland, and Jin U. Kang, Johns Hopkins, on a project to develop imaging robots for supervised autonomous surgery on soft tissue.

The $1 million in NIH funding pushes the boundaries on amazing by using multi-spectral imaging technology and improved techniques to reduce surgical complications.

Anastomosis is a technique used by surgeons to join one thing to another, whether it’s a vascular surgeon suturing blood vessels, an orthopedic surgeon joining muscles or a urologist stitching healthy parts of the urinary tract back together. Complications can set in if their stitching is too tight, prompting scar tissue to form, or too loose, letting fluid seep out.

“The human eye can see a narrow spectrum of electromagnetic radiation. These multi-spectral imaging cameras would see across greater set of wavelengths,” he says.

The project has three aims: figuring out the best way to place sutures using multi-spectral imaging, accurately tracking soft tissue as they model suturing and comparing the handicraft of a robot against anastomosis hand-sewn by surgeons.

“I like challenges, and I like new things. I am definitely not interested in doing permutations of other people’s work,” Dr. Hsieh explains. “I would much rather go on a path that hasn’t been tread. It is more difficult in some ways, but on a day-to-day basis, I know I am making a contribution.”

In another innovative research project, Dr. Hsieh leveraged a protein secreted by a parasitic worm, Schistosoma haematobium, that suppresses inflammation in hosts as a new therapeutic approach for chemotherapy-induced hemorrhagic cystitis, a form of inflammation of the bladder.

Watching his first surgery nearly 30 years ago, he had no idea robots might one day vie to take over some part of that complicated procedure, or that parasite proteins could be harnessed as drugs. However, he has a clear idea which innovations could be on the horizon for urology in the next three decades.

“My hope is 30 years from now, we will have a solid UTI vaccine and more non-antibiotic therapies. UTIs are the second-most common bacterial infection in childhood and, in severe cases, can contribute to kidney failure,” he says.

Globally, parasitic worms pose an ongoing challenge, affecting more than 1 billion worldwide – second only to malaria. People persistently infected by schistosome worms fail to reach their growth potential, struggle academically and lack sufficient energy for exercise or work.


“There is a feeling that the infection prevalence might be decreasing globally, but not as quickly as everyone hopes. In 30 years perhaps with more mass drug administration and additional drugs – including a vaccine – we’ll have it close to eliminated globally. It would become more like polio, casting a slim shadow with small pockets of infection here or there, rather than consigning millions to perpetual poverty.”

Finding new ways to fight hemorrhagic cystitis for cancer patients

Michael Hsieh

Children diagnosed with cancer face fear and uncertainty, a series of medical appointments, and multiple diagnostic tests and treatments.

Children diagnosed with cancer face fear and uncertainty, a series of medical appointments, and multiple diagnostic tests and treatments. On top of these challenges, says Children’s National Health System urologist Michael Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D., many patients contend with additional issues: Treatment side effects, discomforts, and dangers that nearly eclipse that of the cancer itself. One of the most common side effects is hemorrhagic cystitis (HC), a problem marked by extreme inflammation in the bladder that can lead to tremendous pain and bleeding.

HC often results from administering two common chemotherapy drugs, cyclophosphamide and ifosfamide, used to treat a wide variety of pediatric cancers, including leukemias and cancers of the eye and nerves. In the United States alone, nearly 400,000 patients of all ages receive these drugs annually. Of these, up to 40 percent develop some form of HC, from symptomatic disease characterized by pain and bloody urine to cellular changes to the bladder detected by microscopic analysis.

“Having to deal with therapy complications makes the cancer ordeal so much worse for our patients,” says Dr. Hsieh, Director of the Clinic for Adolescent and Adult Pediatric Onset Urology at Children’s National. “Being able to eliminate this extremely detrimental side effect once and for all could have an enormous impact on patients at our hospital and around the world.”

Preventing complications with mesna

The severity of side effects from cyclophosphamide and ifosfamide can vary from mild and fleeting to bladder bleeding so extensive that patients require multiple transfusions and surgery to remove blood clots that can obstruct urinary release, says Dr. Hsieh, who frequently treats patients with this condition. But HC isn’t inevitable, he adds. A drug called mesna has the potential to prevent this complication when prescribed before a patient receives chemotherapy.

The problem is for a fraction of patients, mesna simply doesn’t work. For others, mesna can cause its own serious side effects, such as life-threatening malfunctions of the heart’s electrical system or allergic reactions.

“These kids are often already very sick from their cancers and treatments, and then you compound it with these complications,” says Dr. Hsieh. “There’s a desperate need for alternatives to mesna.”

Looking at alternative treatments

In a new review of the scientific literature, published August 24 by Urology, senior author Dr. Hsieh and a colleague detail all the substitutes for this drug that researchers have examined over several years.

One of these is hyperhydration, or delivering extra fluid intravenously to help flush the bladder and keep dangerous chemotherapy drug metabolites from accumulating and causing damage. Hyperhydration, however, isn’t an option for some patients with kidney, lung, or liver problems, who can’t tolerate excess fluid.

Researchers also have invested heavily in antioxidants as alternative treatments. Because much of the damage caused by these chemotherapy agents is thought to result from a cascade of oxidizing free radicals that cyclophosphamide and ifosfamide launch in the bladder, antioxidants might prevent injury by halting the free radical attack. Antioxidants that researchers have explored for this purpose include cytokines, or immune-signaling molecules, known as interleukin-1 and tumor necrosis factor, and a compound called reduced glutathione. Other studies have tested plant-based antioxidants, including a component of red wine known as resveratrol; a compound called diallyl disulfide isolated from garlic oil; and extracts from Uncaria tomentosa, a woody vine commonly known as “cat’s claw” that grows in the jungles of Central and South America.

Researchers also have tested options that focus on reducing the intense inflammation that cyclophosphamide and ifosfamide cause in the bladder, including the corticoid steroid drug dexamethasone as well as another cytokine known as interleukin-4.

However, Dr. Hsieh says, studies have shown that each of these treatments is inferior to mesna. To truly combat HC, researchers not only need to find new drugs and methods that outperform mesna but also new ways to reverse HC after other measures fail—problems he’s working to solve in his own lab.