The Perfect Arc of a Biomedical Engineer’s Career: John Snell, PhD


Key Points

  • This month, the Foundation’s Brain Program Technical Director for the past 12 years, John Snell, PhD, began a new role as Manager of Advanced Simulation and Applications at Histosonics.
  • We celebrate John for his important work at the Foundation and contributions to advancing the field.

This month, the Foundation’s Brain Program Technical Director for the past 12 years, John Snell, PhD, took a new role at Histosonics, a focused ultrasound company that specializes in histotripsy.

Dr. Snell’s career has exemplified the perfect arc of a biomedical engineering career. More than 20 years ago, he began fundamental technology research in an academic environment in the department of neurosurgery at the University of Virginia (UVA).

He joined the Foundation at its inception – when focused ultrasound was primarily a research environment – and led the Brain Technical Program for more than 13 years. At the Foundation, he focused on translational research, including early technology prototyping and development and proof-of-concept work, in collaboration with leading manufacturers and academic research laboratories.

Now that the technology has evolved into a commercially available therapy for patients, Dr. Snell will be helping to develop products that will be manufactured and distributed by HistoSonics, Inc., and used to treat countless patients with focused ultrasound.

“The Focused Ultrasound Foundation provided me a unique opportunity to participate in the development of this revolutionary technology and to collaborate with the vibrant research and clinical community that surrounds and catalyzes it,” said Dr. Snell. “It has been a privilege and an honor to work alongside those within and outside of the Foundation to bring what has often appeared as miraculous life change to patients around the world.”

We want to recognize Dr. Snell for his important work at the Foundation along with his significant contributions to advancing the field.

“It’s been an enormous privilege to have had John as a student, employee, colleague, and – most importantly – a friend,” said Foundation Chairman Neal F. Kassell, MD. “The Foundation’s Brain Program would not be what it is today without his dedication and expertise. We look forward to continuing to collaborate with John in the future.”

Below is a timeline of Dr. Snell’s career achievements.

Dr. Snell earned his PhD in Biomedical Engineering from the UVA and joined the Neurovisualization Laboratory in the Department of Neurological Surgery. It was during this time that he initially met and worked with former Head of Neurosurgery Dr. Kassell. Prior to UVA, he attended Clarkson University and Duke University, where he received a BS in Biomedical Engineering.

Dr. Snell became an assistant professor at UVA, where he conducted research in medical image processing and was responsible for stereotactic radiosurgery planning at the Gamma Knife Center.

Dr. Snell accepted the position of Chief Scientist at the newly established Focused Ultrasound Foundation, founded by Dr. Kassell. In this role, he created and implemented the external research awards program and was instrumental in helping to establish the first Focused Ultrasound Center of Excellence at UVA.

A year into his position at the Foundation, Dr. Snell pursued an opportunity at Varian Medical Systems, becoming a Senior Software Engineer. He developed several new user-interface improvements, including interactive 3D plan displays, for Varian’s prostate brachytherapy planning systems, Variseed and Vitesse.

Dr. Snell returned to the Foundation in the role of Brain Program Technical Director, a position he held for more than 12 years. During that time, he directed a research program concerned with solving important technical problems associated with transcranial MR-guided focused ultrasound applications.

He was also involved with preclinical and clinical research at the UVA Focused Ultrasound Center as a visiting professor in the Department of Neurological Surgery. This work included investigations into the use of transcranial focused ultrasound for stroke, epilepsy, neurofibromatosis, hydrocephalus, trigeminal neuralgia, and drug delivery.

Dr. Snell pioneered the Foundation’s small, invitation-only workshop format beginning with the highly successful brain imaging workshop. The workshop convened leaders from industry, neurosurgeons, MR engineers, and MR physicists from leading academic centers for a collaborative problem-solving session that generated solutions for improving the efficiency and safety of transcranial focused ultrasound treatments.

Dr. Snell and Foundation colleagues joined UVA, the University of Utah, Stanford University, Vanderbilt University, Institut Langevin, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital on a project to expand the range of neurological disorders that can be treated with focused ultrasound. The collaborative team aimed to better assess temperature changes in the brain during focused ultrasound treatments, with the goals of increasing safety, decreasing treatment time, and expanding the range of neurological disorders that can be treated.

Dr. Snell developed and released Kranion®, a highly visual and interactive, open-source transcranial focused ultrasound modeling system for conducting research. Kranion allows scientists to “see” how the paths of focused ultrasound’s invisible sound waves behave as they pass through a skull. It is intended for research purposes only, and it is available on the Foundation’s website. It was also published in the Journal of Neurosurgery.

Kranion is in use by more than 60 people at 35 sites around the world.

As part of the Foundation’s Scholars Program, Dr. Snell mentored several undergraduate student interns who created educational virtual reality simulation environments, including one for modeling blood-brain barrier opening using focused ultrasound.

Dr. Snell began his new role as Manager of Advanced Simulation and Applications at Histosonics, a company using histotripsy to noninvasively and mechanically destroy tissue. Their EdisonTM platform is undergoing clinical trials in Europe and the US for the treatment of patients with liver tumors.