Dr. Max Kelz Brings Passion for Research to IARS Board

In speaking with Max B. Kelz, MD, PhD for just a few minutes, his passion for the specialty of anesthesiology is apparent. He exudes an unmistakable sense of wonder for anesthesiology, becoming more animated as he expounds on his research and the advancements in the field. For much of his career, Dr. Kelz has contributed to unraveling the mystery behind how anesthetic drugs work while concurrently providing exceptional mentorship to promising young investigators. This dedication to the advancement of research and mentorship for the next generation of anesthesiologists made the decision easy for Dr. Kelz to accept a position on the Board of Trustees for the International Anesthesia Research Society (IARS).

Dr. Kelz, who is the David E. Longnecker Associate Professor of Anesthesiology and Critical Care, and Director for Research Education, Department of Anesthesiology and Critical Care, at Perelman School of Medicine at University of Pennsylvania, is honored to be able to support the IARS mission to advance scientific research and education and improve patient care. He views his role on the IARS Board as an opportunity to have a voice in the scientific advancement of anesthesiology.

Joining the Board of Trustees was not his first contribution to the IARS community. Dr. Kelz served on the IARS Mentored Research Award (IMRA) Study Section for seven years, including as Chair this past year. “It was one of the more fun things I’ve done – seeing proposals from some of the best and brightest in the field,” he said. “When I came into residency, I didn’t appreciate how important good mentoring was. I thought good ideas would launch on their own.” He directly benefited from great mentors during his residency at University of Pennsylvania and became a staunch believer in developing strong mentoring opportunities. Dr. Kelz emphasized, “IARS grants are a way to nurture young talent and get them inspired about the future of academic anesthesiology.”

Most days, Dr. Kelz, who is originally from Chicago and a die-hard Chicago Bears fan, spends quality time in his lab, conducting basic and translational research. The Kelz Lab inspires bright junior faculty, post-docs and residents to dream up hypotheses that they can test in the OR. “Anesthesia is a field where you can use pharmacology to test ideas and get very rapid feedback on whether your clinical intuition was right or not,” he explained. Although a majority of his time is spent on research, he also spends 30 percent of his time in the OR focused on neuroanesthesia and is heavily involved in resident education. One of the questions his team focuses on is the arousal state neural event that initiates natural sleep and how induced anesthetic state is similar to NREM sleep. Through their work, they search for commonalities and differences that will better inform sleep biology as well as anesthetic mechanisms. 

Surprisingly, anesthesiology was not his planned career path when he entered the medical field. As a medical student at Yale University School of Medicine, Dr. Kelz initially thought he would pursue neurology or psychiatry. During the third and fourth weeks of his surgery rotation as a medical student, he was first exposed to the specialty of anesthesiology. “I didn’t figure out how cool the field was because it was so early in my training,” he said. What really convinced him that anesthesiology was his ideal career path was an experience he had with obstetric anesthesia later in his training. An attending let him administer epidural anesthesia on a pregnant patient. “The ability to knock out pain in a pregnant patient gave me great satisfaction. It was the first time I felt I made a true difference in a patient’s life,” he explained. And so he settled on anesthesiology as his specialty.

At this point, he thought that he would focus on research in pain. It wasn’t until he was a first-year resident that he stumbled upon his current research focus. He was caring for a patient with narcolepsy with cataplexy who was experiencing pain from a motor accident. After discontinuing general anesthesia, he expected the patient to emerge from anesthesia in 20 minutes. It took six hours. “I wondered what I had done wrong. It really opened my eyes. I didn’t really understand how the anesthetic drugs worked and the effects of how we use them every day,” he remembered. After further investigation, he discovered that the patient had experienced an episode of cataplexy which delayed emergence from anesthesia.

This revelation sparked him to pursue this research area over the next 15 years with the aim to better understand how anesthetic drugs work. Initially, he conducted controlled studies in mouse models exhibiting narcolepsy with cataplexy and then continued with cross-institutional collaborations studying fruit flies, zebra fish and eventually translational studies in humans. “It was exciting watching movies of the awake brain entering and subsequently exiting anesthesia,” he said. “The forward and backward states of anesthesia may not be a mirror image of one another. Those neural states could be overlapping or distinct in the reverse state out of anesthesia.” 

That excitement hasn’t faded for Dr. Kelz over the years. He has as much enthusiasm for the field as he did with that first case 15 years ago. “We have important questions that remain unanswered. There are phenomenal clinical therapies and fascinating clinical questions,” he said. “I very much enjoy doing clinical work and doing research. I am very happy to continue in this venue for as long as I can.” And that spirit and a healthy dose of enthusiasm and curiosity to answer the important questions in anesthesiology is something the IARS community can count on from Dr. Kelz.

Encourage, stimulate, and fund ongoing anesthesia-related research projects that will enhance and advance the specialty, and to disseminate current, state-of-the-art, basic and clinical research data in all areas of clinical anesthesia, including perioperative medicine, critical care, and pain management. The IARS is focused solely on the advancement and support of education and scientific research related to anesthesiology.

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IMRA Awards

This award is intended to support investigations that will further the understanding of clinical practice in anesthesiology and related sciences. Up to four research projects are selected annually, with a maximum award of $175,000 each, payable over two years.

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