Neurosurgical oncologist Dr. Dominique Higgins, MD, PhD, joined the UNC Neurosurgery team this fall as Assistant Professor in UNC Health’s Department of Neurosurgery. His clinical specialties and research interests focus on neurosurgical oncology and brain tumor treatment.
Dr. Higgins knew he wanted to pursue a career in neurosurgery when he was in high school. Later during his undergraduate and graduate education at Stanford University studying Biological Sciences, Dr. Higgins was fascinated by the emergence of stem cell biology and its role in cancer. While completing his honors program in neuroscience at Stanford, he began research in one of the oncology labs identifying the cancer stem cells in brain tumors. During his time in the lab, Dr. Higgins developed a deeper understanding of brain tumor biology and how the scientific path created a broader picture of how to successfully treat brain tumors.
“There is something very unique about how collaborative the environment is here at UNC, and how collegial everyone is while still functioning at a very high level. I saw opportunities for implementing some of the ideas that I am passionate about.”
Dr. Higgins went on to complete a dual MD/PhD program at Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, appeasing both his interests in medicine and research. While at Mayo, Dr. Higgins spent more time in the tumor-focused labs, and eventually completed his PhD thesis studying glioblastoma stem cells. During his time at Mayo, Dr. Higgins felt he had found his passion where both his research and clinical interests came together, and he felt he could a mark on the progress that was being made. He went on to complete his residency training in neurosurgery at Columbia University’s Neurological Institute of New York. He then successfully pursued a brain tumor fellowship at the University of Miami, with an emphasis on minimally invasive open and endoscopic surgical treatments for brain tumors.
For someone like Dr. Higgins who is interested in both brain tumor treatment and research, UNC Medical Center is the perfect location. “There is something very unique about how collaborative the environment is here at UNC, and how collegial everyone is while still functioning at a very high level. I saw opportunities for implementing some of the ideas that I am passionate about.”
Dr. Higgins’ research is focused on glioblastoma metabolism and studying a new form of cell death through a process called ferroptosis. Through the course of his research, Dr. Higgins has seen promising results when testing a special dietary therapy that increases ferroptosis, finding that the treatment significantly improved survival in mice with malignant brain tumors. Dr. Higgins hopes to bring that clinical trial to UNC Medical Center by next year.
Another area of research that interests Dr. Higgins is local drug delivery. It can be difficult to treat tumors in the brain because the brain works hard to keep chemicals and toxins out. Dr. Higgins‘ research has looked into ways to safely increase the concentration of the drug to the brain tumor site while simultaneously limiting toxicity to other organs in the body.
Dr. Higgins was also excited to join the UNC Neurosurgery faculty under the direction of world-renowned pituitary tumor surgeon, Dr. Nelson Oyesiku who serves as the department’s chair. “I was inspired by Dr. Oyesiku and his strong reputation,” said Dr. Higgins. “Everyone always speaks so highly of him and I thought he was the right person to lead a department that I would want to be a part of.”
With such a high-powered cancer center combined with renowned neurosurgery faculty, Dr. Higgins felt that joining UNC Health was an easy decision. “I’ve told applicants during residency interviews that UNC is the best kept secret because you see so much clinical volume given that UNC Chapel Hill is the center of a large health network with high quality physicians, and it also hosts one of the top comprehensive cancer centers in the country,” said Dr. Higgins.
Dr. Higgins is hopeful for the future for patients diagnosed with glioblastoma and other brain tumors. “Right now we are in the information phase, we have learned so much about brain tumors and their genetics and molecular make-up,” said Dr. Higgins. “As we use this information, we will see a lot more effective therapies and implementation of clinical trials that will have a higher chance of success. I’d like to see us move the needle of what the outcomes are to be able to paint a better picture for patients and their families.”
In addition to his own research, Dr. Higgins will also work with neuro-oncologist Dr. Yasmeen Rauf, Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery and Interim Division Chief in Neuro-oncology, on an upcoming clinical trial for glioblastoma patients.
Dr. Higgins also partners with Dr. Shawn Hingtgen, Associate Professor in the Division of Pharmacoengineering and Molecular Pharmaceutics, on developing better ways to study and treat glioblastoma and brain metastases. Their research will aim to develop effective therapies that will have a higher chance of success. Both doctors hope to bring this study online next year.
Before joining the UNC Neurosurgery faculty this fall, Dr. Higgins spent the summer in Paris learning minimally invasive approaches from one of the best skull base surgeons in the world, Dr. Sebastien Froelich.
In his spare time, Dr. Higgins enjoys traveling and spending time exploring the Research Triangle with his wife and two children.