Dear Medical College of Georgia Friends,

Vision discovery group gets National Eye Institute core grant to strengthen infrastructure
We have long, strong roots in vision science, with greats like the late Dr. Keith Green, Regents’ professor, who came to us in 1974 and stayed through 2000, doing pioneering studies in glaucoma. And, of course, the amazing Dr. Ruth Caldwell, cell biologist, who came to us in 1998 and continues to this day to ardently pursue better understanding and treatment of potentially blinding retinopathies and other eye maladies. People like Dr. Sylvia Smith, chair of our Department of Cellular Biology and Anatomy, a retinal cell biologist, whose focus includes better understanding the retina’s normal structure and how to keep diseases like diabetes from destroying this layered tissue that enables us to capture light from our lens and convert it to signals for our brain so we can see. Dr. Smith became scientific director of what is now the James and Jean Culver Vision Discovery Institute when it was established by then-MCG Dean Dr. Doug Miller in 2008. Five years later, she would become department chair and in those years, and in both jobs, she is an enthusiastic supporter and leader who, like the best leaders among us, is more thrilled by the accomplishments of those around her than of her own, very significant contributions.

Dr. Sylvia Smith is PI on the $3 million grant that heightens efficiency, growth
I am happy to share that Dr. Smith also is now principal investigator on our first P30 Award from the National Eye Institute that will enable us to augment the already collaborative environment between our vision scientists, help them grow individually and collectively, and be a selling point for future recruits. This new $3 million center core grant does not directly fund individual studies like most grants we get, rather enables a strong, efficient infrastructure to support vision research by this growing and already productive team of scientists whose focus includes the retina, cornea and lens. The new grant enables establishment of an official structure that supports modules in Visual Function Assessment, led by Dr. Smith and co-directed by Dr. Amany Tawfik; Histology and Imaging, led by Dr. Xingjun Fan and co-directed by Dr. Shruti Sharma; and Gene Expression/Proteomics led by Dr. Yutao Liu and co-directed by Dr. Ashok Sharma. An internal advisory group includes Drs. Caldwell, Manuela Bartoli, Pamela Martin and Mitch Watsky.

Collaborative, productive spirit enables vision group’s success
This is a strong lineup of individuals whose natural instinct is to help each other, and these modules will make finding that support more simple and avoid the possibility of duplicate efforts and wasted time and resources. Instead, everyone will know exactly who to call for expertise with super-specialized techniques, like visualizing a mouse cornea and testing the electrical response of a mouse retina. No big lab equipment purchases will happen with this grant, rather an easing and amplification of sharing the significant resources already here. Let me also note that eight RO1s, the NIH’s oldest grant mechanism, are required to show a vision center has reached a critical point in its development and will benefit from this kind of support. Our Vision Discovery Institute now has 17 RO1s. I thank all of you for your hard work, enthusiasm and collaborative spirit. In keeping with that, please note institute faculty come from a range of MCG departments as well as the Dental College of Georgia and the University of Georgia Experimental Therapeutics Program. One more note, the late Dr. James F. Culver was the first ophthalmologist for the aerospace program, an inaugural member of the National Eye Advisory Council, on which Dr. Smith just completed a four-year term, and a 1945 MCG graduate.

Dr. Guangyu Wu receives $1.7 million NIH grant to study cell surface receptors
This is usually the time of year we hit the beach or the mountains or visit some relatives for a change of pace and scenery. We understand that this year our usual summer sojourns may inadvertently harm us or others because of real concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus and COVID-19. But we are hardly still. There is constant and beneficial travel inside each of us, like how our blood is in constant movement and maturing cells are traveling upward to replenish our skin. Our Dr. Guangyu Wu, pharmacologist in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, is among of small group of scientists anywhere who focus on the natural travels of G protein-coupled receptors, receptors that are supposed to sit on our cells’ surface and aid essentials like our taste and smell (which COVID can rob) and immunity. At least one-third of the drugs that we take for a myriad of problems like heart failure and Alzheimer’s have these receptors as targets. Dr. Wu, who just received a $1.7 million grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, focuses on a common G protein-coupled receptor called the adrenergic receptor, which is involved in the fight or flight response that pushes our heart rate and blood pressure up so we can run from danger. Like Drs. Smith and Caldwell, all these years later, he remains fascinated by what he knows about how these receptors are in a constant state of production and travel inside and then to the surface of each of our cells, and by what he continues to find. Like many of our basic scientists, Dr. Wu wants to better understand this cell fundamental because we need to better understand how our bodies work, but also because he has his longer-term eye on trying to help receptors along. Because in this case, disease can happen when enough receptors cancel their trip. Congratulations and thank you Dr. Wu.

MCG graduates, other donors purchase stethoscopes for the Class of 2024
Last time in these writings, we welcomed our Class of 2024. Like so much in our lives, COVID even altered how we typically greet our freshmen. But there were still some magic moments. Our Alumni Association in collaboration with our colleagues in Philanthropy and Alumni Engagement led a campaign to purchase stethoscopes for this first class of 240 students (up from 230). Stethoscopes are a medicine mainstay, of course, and these are even better because they bear the MCG seal and were a gift from people who support MCG. I am happy to report this very successful initiative provided a new stethoscope for every student. The icing was that many of the donors, who could not be there as they would probably have liked, wrote letters to the students. People like our graduates Drs. Murray and Sandra Freedman who are as enthusiastic as ever about medicine and MCG. “During the next four years, study and work hard to learn the science of medicine, but also learn the art of medicine that is needed in caring for the whole patient and his/her family, not just the disease,” writes Dr. Sandra Freedman, Class of 1968. She and Dr. Murray Freedman, Class of 1967, both assured our newest students that they will get the education they need here. Yes they will, Drs. Freedman, and thank you and all our donors for doing this and more for our students. I have to mention that our Scott Henson, associate VP for alumni engagement, was among the donors. While Scott is not a graduate, he loves MCG and its graduates as if he were, and we very much appreciate his longtime commitment to Georgia’s only public medical school. Scott, hopefully it won’t be long before we are on the road again visiting our amazing alumni.

The Class of 2024 named after 1973 graduate Dr. Charlie Howell
Finally today, this Class of 2024, not only got a new stethoscope, they got a new name. As we have discussed, this class will finish preclinical and clinical training in three years instead of four. So we decided to dub this class: The Dr. Charles Howell Class of the Medical College of Georgia. That’s because Dr. Howell, a 1973 graduate, pediatric surgeon and longtime chair of the Department of Surgery who now leads our practice group, AU Medical Associates, was among a small number of students who actually graduated in three years as part of a short-lived experiment that was happening in about 25 percent of medical schools in the 1970s. While it didn’t work out then for a variety of reasons, we are confident the curriculum changes we are making starting with this class will work to shorten medical school to three years for some who opt for primary care. It also will enable those pursuing other specialties and subspecialties to better individualize their medical education — to use their fourth year to do research, complete a dual degree or delve deeper into their chosen specialty — in the normal four-year timeframe. I can promise you, Class of 2024, that there is not a much better moniker, short of MCG student, that you can be called than the Dr. Charles Howell Class.

Please continue to take good care out there.

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