Five Questions with Haitham Alabsi

Haitham Alabsi looks at monitor while checking a patient's vitals in a hospital room. Another medical staff member points at the screen.

Our C/T Research Academy trainee discusses the role of precision medicine in his work to create personalized treatments as part of neurocritical care and research.

Haitham Alabsi, DO, is an attending physician in the Division of Neurocritical Care at Massachusetts General Hospital. In 2020, he began our two-year Clinical and Translational (C/T) Research Academy, an advanced training program that offers a pathway for early career clinicians and researchers to conduct independent research.

What led you to a career in neurocritical medicine, which includes research?

When I was a teenager, I had a cousin who passed away from meningitis. I felt helpless, so much wasn’t known, and that made me want to pursue a career in medicine. I wanted a career where I could help guide patients through their worst moments, and I considered oncology and neurology, both fields with complex disease processes and many unknowns.

But it was my passion for neurology that started growing, as I began research on stem cells and puzzled over how the brain works with dementia and multiple sclerosis. It was then that a career in neurocritical care became obvious to me, a field that’s still in its infancy. I realized too that being a clinician alone was not going to best serve my patients and that clinical research and care go hand-in-hand.

What was appealing about the C/T Research Academy program and how might it make a difference in your career?

I came as a neurocritical care fellow in 2018 from outside Harvard and the Mass General Brigham system, and I’ve been amazed at the sheer amount of resources and brain power here. The more I talked to people, the more I realized what I didn’t know. The clinical and translational program has created a structure that identifies all the resources that someone like me in my early career would need to do and know to have a good chance of succeeding in academia.

It provides coursework in a small classroom environment with only about eight to 20 people, where we are meeting with the best of the best. These are people who head the FDA, are running statistics at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, lead neurology and other departments at Harvard hospitals, and on and on. You also have people from the technology and pharmacology sectors.

You can waste a lot of energy going down the wrong road. You may be excited and passionate, but misdirected passion can be detrimental and demoralizing. But here in one room are the top people who can advise us and give us minor directions or readjustments. C/T Research Academy is an extremely invaluable resource.

COVID hit when you were a neurocritical care fellow and continued as you became an attending physician in July 2020. How has the pandemic affected both your research and the patients you’re seeing? Are you seeing more strokes?

We were all so focused on COVID that I didn’t notice that transition from fellow to attending until four or five months later! I wouldn’t say that we’ve seen more stroke in the ICU, but we’re seeing more complex patients with different factors underlying their stroke. That has required adjustments to standard treatments.

After COVID hit, I had to completely shift my research projects. One project involved implementing new technologies in the ICU to help us understand brain function and brain activity in a much more minuscule, up-to-the-second way than is possible with an MRI or CT scan. With the pandemic, implementation of new technologies was no longer a priority.

I transitioned to working with Brandon Westover, MD, PhD, and his team who were using data analytics of COVID cases in the Mass General Brigham system to create prediction models. I was taking care of ICU patients and at the same constantly looking at how we could improve our care through data analytics.

Talk about your mentor, the research that you’re doing with him, and your research aspirations?

Having a mentor like Jonathan Rosand, MD, honestly, has been the greatest thing that has ever happened in my life. It’s very difficult to find people who are accomplished and willing to invest in others, because they really don’t get much in return. He has a deep knowledge of genetics, grant writing, and even how to be a humanitarian. He’s connected me to many people who can help guide me toward my vision.

The research I’m doing overall involves using precision medicine to provide each patient with an individualized treatment plan. We want to take data from all these advanced technologies, functional MRIs, second-by-second blood pressure readings, labs and vitals, and use them to create a precise up-to-the minute treatment plan for each individual.

I plan to continue to look at the immediate post-injury period in patients in the ICU and study how early treatments affect long-term recovery of the brain. Does having a blood pressure drop 10 points in the first week after an injury have a significant long-term effect on someone?

Is there a difference depending on when someone starts rehab or on what particular activity they do? The brain is in such a vulnerable state right after injury. What minor things that we think insignificant are actually critical to long-term recovery?

What brings you joy?

Professionally, having a community driven by academics and motivated by curiosity like I’ve found here has brought me the most joy.

I’ve lived in many different places, on four continents, and in nine states within the United States. I’m originally from Jordan and am part of a large family with 127 first cousins, most of whom live around the world.

I usually do a lot of running and weightlifting, but lately I’ve been focused on my wedding. Vaccine permitting, life permitting, we’ll have a small wedding in June.

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