Italian Neurosurgeon Joins Foundation as Merkin Scholar


Francesco Prada, MD, is the latest fellow to join the Foundation as a Merkin Scholar, arriving in July from the Istituto Neurologico Carlo Besta in Milan, Italy. Dr. Prada joins Frédéric Padilla, PhD, of the Laboratory of Therapeutic Applications of Ultrasound (LabTAU) in Lyon, France, who also began a 12-month appointment in July and is working closely with the Foundation’s scientific team.

Francesco Prada, MD

Support from Richard Merkin, MD, has allowed the Foundation to offer this unique opportunity for mid-career and senior international researchers. Because Dr. Prada and Dr. Padilla were both such strong candidates for the position, the Foundation made a special request of Dr. Merkin to fund an additional scholar this year, and Dr. Merkin agreed to increase funding for the program. The Foundation is extremely grateful for Dr. Merkin’s generosity, which has enabled us to further amplify our reach though international collaboration.

Dr. Prada has been practicing neurosurgery since 2000. In 2009, he started using ultrasound during surgical procedures; working with interventional radiologists he later used navigated ultrasound combined with ultrasound contrast agents (microbubbles) to study the features of tumors. To date, he has performed more than 500 ultrasound-guided surgical procedures.

All of the previous Merkin Scholars have been technical researchers – Dr. Prada is the Foundation’s first clinical fellow. “This fellowship is an opportunity for in-depth learning and to return to Italy with new techniques to share with my neurosurgery colleagues.” Dr. Prada said. “In fact the C. Besta Institute in Milan is on the verge of buying and installing an Exablate system later this year.”

Dr. Prada had been using ultrasound as a diagnostic tool, but when he began studying its possible therapeutic uses, he learned about focused ultrasound and the Focused Ultrasound Foundation. “When I was working on my degree thesis in 1999, much of my research included papers written by Dr. Kassell,” said Francesco, referring to Neal F. Kassell, MD, founder and chairman of the Focused Ultrasound Foundation. “My path in medicine again led me towards Dr. Kassell.”

More recently, Dr. Prada has been focusing on the intra-operative applications of focused ultrasound for the treatment of cerebral and spinal tumor and vascular lesions. He is currently developing advanced ultrasound techniques in neurosurgery, such as fusion imaging for virtual navigation, contrast enhanced ultrasound, and elastography, and he is leading the “image guided surgical therapy” program at the C. Besta Institute.

His interest in diagnostic and therapeutic applications of ultrasound led to his involvement in the TheraGlio project, aimed at the development of a multimodal contrast agent to study how microbubbles could be used to deliver drugs, which was awarded a $6 million grant by the European Community.

Dr. Prada is here to learn deeply about approved FUS treatments and to learn emerging applications, working closely with his mentor Jeff Elias, MD, at the University of Virginia’s Focused Ultrasound Center, as well as with Richard Price, PhD, and Zhiyuan Xu, MD. Dr. Prada plans to visit additional sites in the US and Canada, with the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto first on the list.

He intends to conduct research to investigate new FUS treatments for glioblastoma, exploring the sonodynamic effects of fluorescein combined with FUS, as well as the potential role of microbubbles in addressing the vascularization for this dreadful tumor. He would also like to develop an artificial bone flap, which would ideally allow easier access to the brain and facilitate FUS treatments and patient follow-up.

Now in its third year, the Merkin Scholars program is intended to stimulate collaboration within the international focused ultrasound community. Previous Merkin Scholars include Dong-guk Paeng (Jeju National University), Jean-Francois Aubry (Institut Langevin), and Cyril Lafon (LabTAU), all of whom have continued collaborating with the Foundation.

Dr. Richard Merkin is a renowned physician, entrepreneur, and philanthropist. He is the Founder the CEO of Heritage Provider Network, serves on the Cal Tech Board of Directors among others, and co-founded FasterCures, an action tank that strives to to save lives by speeding up and improving the medical research system.