Bursting with excitement, about 135 seventh- and eighth-graders gathered in a conference room at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and listened intently to a speech that could end up shaping their young lives.
The speaker giving the opening remarks at the annual Brain- works program was world-renowned neurosurgeon, researcher and thought-leader in the field of medicine, Keith L. Black, M.D.
Called the Michael Jordan of neurosurgeons by Ebony Magazine and one of the “Heroes of Medicine” by Time Magazine, Black has devoted himself to paving the way for the next generation of neurosurgeons during his 30-year career.
Hoping that tomorrow’s physicians will continue his work to find a cure for brain cancer, Black started the Brainworks program in 1998 to inspire young, promising students to pursue opportunities in neuroscience by having them spend a day with neurologists, neurosurgeons and scientists.
“We can look around the medical profession and still not see many in leadership positions at hospitals or medical schools who look like me,” Black said. “I made a choice early on to do my part to build up the much-needed pipeline in the profession by capturing and engaging the minds of young people from diverse but financially challenged communities.”
Black offers the Brainworks students the same kind of nurturing that helped him develop his talent. He exposes them to a world of possibilities — from doing a simulated brain operation on a phantom skull using an $800,000 microscope, to learning how to operate a cutting-edge, 3-D navigation system that helps neuro- surgeons see inside the brain.
As he spoke to the students on a recent day, Black explained how he was inspired while growing up in Ohio.“I got a chance to actually go to one of the hospitals in Cleveland and listen to a brain surgeon talk.”
Born in Tuskegee, AL, Black credits his parents — both educators — for helping him to cultivate his passion for learning and research.“My love of science was nurtured early by my father, Robert N. Black Sr., who I always considered the ‘ultimate educator’ because of his ability to identify my curiosity and help to cultivate that interest and develop that potential,” Black said.
Also a pioneer, his father was an elementary school principal at a segregated school prohibited from integrating the student body. To offer better opportunities for his students, his father instead integrated the faculty and offered more challenging subjects at his school.
Black’s family moved to suburban Cleveland when he was in fifth grade. Shortly after the move, Black was being mentored by researchers at what is now Case Western Reserve University, and, by the age of 17, he wrote a paper that won the prestigious Westinghouse Award for scientific research. Not long after, he was accepted to the University of Michigan in a program that allowed him to earn his undergraduate degree and his medical degree in six years.
After earning his degrees at the age of 24, Black served his internship and residency at the University of Michigan Medical School, where he met his wife, Carol Bennett, M.D., a Los Angeles urologist.
In 1987, at the age of 30, Black was recruited by UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, where he became head of its Comprehensive Brain Tumor Program.
In 1997, Black became Director of the Division of Neurosurgery at Cedars-Sinai, one of the largest and most respected nonprofit academic medical centers in the U.S. There, Black founded the Maxine Dunitz Neurosurgical Institute, where he now leads a team of researchers and neurosurgeons that is translating ground- breaking research into clinical practice.
Black’s team has pioneered new therapies for brain disease, including a vaccine that activates a patient’s immune system to fight the root of the most aggressive forms of brain cancer. “What the vaccine does is make cancer visible to the immune system so that we can plot strategies to begin to overcome the parts of the immune system that the cancer is trying to destroy,” he said.
One of the first patients to receive the vaccine was Mary Wong Lee, who was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme in 2006. Most patients with the disease live an average of 12 to 15 months after diagnosis. Lee, now a 65-year-old grandmother, beat the odds after receiving the vaccine in addition to surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.
“There’s no doubt in my mind the vaccine worked,” Lee said.
Black’s relentless efforts in the fight against cancer and his exceptional reputation in the medical community have attracted the financial backing of some of the biggest names in Hollywood. In 1998, a small group of prominent supporters made a big impact by forming The Brain Trust, an organization that raises funds and awareness for Black’s work. Members of the group include Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington and his wife, Pauletta; the widow of attorney and civil rights leader Johnnie Cochran Jr., Dale Cochran; Grammy Award-winning singer and producer Stevie Wonder; Black’s wife Dr. Carol Bennett; and Chairwoman and CEO of BET Network, Debra L. Lee.
“I am so proud to call Dr. Keith Black my friend and to be a part of his Brain Trust,” Lee said. “He is an exceptional and gifted neurosurgeon, leading incredible research and a practice that is saving and enhancing lives every day. I know that his contributions to neurosurgical research will not only continue to impact lives of patients today but for generations to come.”
The group’s fundraising helped launch the Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr. Brain Tumor Center in 2006. The center is
known for using minimally invasive techniques, including the use of cutting-edge technology that maps out the brain’s pathways in real-time during surgery so that surgeons can plan safer routes for removing tumors.
In addition to raising funds for Black’s research, the Washingtons also offer financial support for promising young researchers through The Pauletta and Denzel Washington Family Gifted Scholars Program at Cedars-Sinai. The program offers paid research opportunities to undergraduate, graduate and medical students with an interest in science.
The couple said Black’s skillful approach to medicine is one reason they will continue to support his work.
“From the moment we first heard him speak, we were impressed by his commitment and dedication to unravelling the
complexities of the human brain,” Pauletta and Denzel Washington said in a statement. “We have personally known people on the receiving end of Dr. Black’s medical care, and they credit him for saving their lives. We remain steadfast to raise awareness and funds to support his groundbreaking research.”
Although Black is proud of his work to date, he knows there is still a lot of work to do. One area Black is passionate about is prevention and the early detection of Alzheimer’s disease. Losing his mother to the disease prompted Black to create an investigational eye scan — now being tested in clinical trials — that could potentially
diagnose the debilitating condition years before its symptoms become apparent.
“Watching how Alzheimer’s affected my mother motivated me to want to find out how to detect this disease sooner,” Black said.
Black’s mother also motivated him to change his own lifestyle. An avid runner, Black exercises regularly, makes sure he gets restful sleep and maintains a mostly Mediterranean diet rich in fish, fruits, vegetables and nuts.
On his free time, he enjoys world traveling and spending quality time with his wife and two adult children.
Like a skilled chess player, Black is always strategizing and thinking several moves ahead. As he and his team continue to look for novel ways to find cures and save lives, his efforts to develop the next generation of talented neuroscientists and physicians to carry on the work he has passionately pioneered over the past 30 years, is just as gratifying to him as the work itself.
“I have witnessed how the kids are inspired and their interest is piqued when we show them the infinite potential involved,” Black said. “This is the start to building that much-needed pipeline.”
Anasia Obioha is a senior communications specialist at Cedars-Sinai and a freelance writer in Los Angeles. All photos courtesy of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.