Dear Medical College of Georgia Friends,

Unprecedented times do not stop MCG

The old saying “When the going gets tough, the tough get going,” defines you, our students, residents, fellows, faculty and staff of the Medical College of Georgia. This has been an unprecedented six months by any measure that could understandingly weigh you down. But, I am so proud of the resilience and “grit” of you all. We talked recently here about the major reworking of our medical school curriculum that is taking shape with this new Class of 2024, enabling a “tailor-made” medical education for most of our students, as it enables a more rapid path to primary care for those who choose to pursue that. Next week our Admissions Office starts our first-ever total virtual interview process to find the Class of 2025. Stay tuned on this, but we are finding great support at our university to grow that class past the unprecedented class size of 240 medical students we admitted this year as a way to further address our state and nation’s severe and growing physician shortage.

GEM Lab has run more than 58,000 novel coronavirus tests; telemedicine is taking a forefront

Our usual clinical activity has unavoidably been cut by COVID as we had to scale back for the safety of patients and staff at our AU Health System. We have even lost members of our health system team to COVID including Alan Watts and Yolanda Coar. Still, our clinical operations and you have shown agility and responsiveness. As examples, by midweek this week our Georgia Esoteric and Molecular Lab alone had tested 58,300 samples for the novel coronavirus from our Health System and state, and ordered the kits and reagents needed to analyze 100,000 more samples over the next 100 days. The GEM Lab also has a submission in to the Food and Drug Administration for a saliva-based COVID test, which, as you can imagine, is much more comfortable for test takers than the nasopharyngeal swab. It also looks to be just as accurate, maybe even more so, if the nasal swab is not placed deep enough. My thanks to the amazing staff in the GEM Lab led by Dr. Ravindra Kolhe, who you will find here around the clock taking care of business. The timing of our Department of Emergency Medicine’s telemedicine program in support of rural hospitals also could not have been better, launching early this year and growing like wildfire. My thanks particularly to MCG graduate and Emergency Medicine Department Vice Chair Dr. Matt Lyon and our first Emergency Medicine Critical Care and Ultrasound Fellow Dr. Max Bursey for their leadership in telemedicine and support of the rural areas of our state. Their work includes using telemedicine to support patients with COVID on inpatient units and ICUs in rural hospitals. This is an important connection and service for our medical school. Rural is a big part of who Georgia is: Our state’s population is considered 40.96% rural, according to World Bank Development Indicators. Telemedicine is efficient and effective at extending the hands of medicine to rural areas and beyond, and COVID has taken those benefits up several notches. 

NIH funding at MCG this fiscal year reaches over $65 million, up from $52.7 million last year

Even though we have had scaled back research operations since late March because of the pandemic, our research results have been anything but curtailed. For example, we recently took a look at the numbers for this fiscal year and National Institutes of Health grants, the gold standard for research funding, to MCG have reached over $65 million, up from $52.7 million last year, almost a 20% increase.  Sponsored programs tells us they are seeing continuous submissions for grants and clinical trial contracts. This is the sound of successful science, driven individuals and a top medical school. On how we got here, I wanted to give a particular shout-out to the Department of Medicine under the leadership of Dr. Brian Annex, who came to us from the University of Virginia School of Medicine, a year ago this month. Dr. Annex teamed up with our Vascular Biology Center led by Dr. David Fulton and Department of Neuroscience and Regenerative Medicine led by Dr. Xin-Yun Lu, to recruit NIH-funded research stars such as Drs. Joe Miano, Xiaochun Long, Vijay Ganta and Lin Gan. With a lot of great help, his department, by far the largest at most medical schools, has experienced a 30% growth in faculty and 33% growth in federal funding. Some of this growth is the result of changes like significant expansion in the Division of Hospital Medicine and bringing the Georgia Prevention Institute into the department, but also because of a heightened excitement and strategic focus on research, as well as clinical work and education. More great recruits are coming soon so expect those percentages to keep moving up. My thanks to Dr. Annex and his team and to each of you.

MCG should climb significantly in the Blue Ridge rankings; Neurosurgery Department should as well

This mammoth internal effort should translate to external movement as well. The Blue Ridge Institute for Medical Research’s ranking of our entire medical school for NIH funding put us at 73rd out of 142 medical schools in 2019. (They rank by calendar year and we use fiscal year July 1 to June 30, so our NIH numbers are not exactly apples to apples to the ones they use). But the numbers for our fiscal year 2020 should hopefully move our ranking into the 60s, which is great. I hope you join me in thanking our basic and physician scientists for such impressive movement. At our Cabinet Meeting this week, we heard about movement toward at least two more of the large NIH Program Project grants in our already awesome Vascular Biology Center. Department of Neurosurgery Chair Dr. Fernando Vale also shared that his department is poised to move up significantly in NIH rankings, from the current Blue Ridge ranking of 25th out of 48 neurosurgery departments likely into the top 10. In more collateral movement, the research growth here has prompted discussion about more research space on our campus, so please stay tuned and excited. There is definitely more to come.

Translational Neuroscientist Dr. Kumar Vaibhav gets $1.8 million NIH grant to study TBI

On the topic of neurosurgery and research, this is the kind of movement I am talking about. Dr. Kumar Vaibhav, translational neuroscientist, came to us as a research scientist in 2017 after completing his postdoctoral fellowship jointly in the AU College of Allied Health Sciences and with our Dr. Kris Dhandapani, NIH-funded neuroscientist in the Department of Neurosurgery. Dr. Vaibhav was promoted to assistant professor just last month but has already gotten a $1.8 million NIH grant (see why neurosurgery is moving up in NIH funding). His research is in working to better understand the brain damage that continues to occur in the hours and days after an actual traumatic brain injury. It’s a serious problem with more than five million Americans living with disabilities from TBIs and a third of hospitalized patients dying from damage that happens after the acute injury. More to come on this on our homepage and elsewhere in the coming weeks, but he is looking at an imbalance caused by TBI that lets inflammation go up and stay up in our brains. The good news is that the anti-inflammatory effect of CBD is one solution his lab is also pursuing. Like we recently talked about with CBD and the lung damage of COVID, important questions Dr. Vaibhav will answer here include when best to intervene following injury to allow proper healing and avoid ongoing damage. Thank you, Dr. Vaibhav.

Students James Dickey, Jeunice Owens-Walton among 50 nationally selected for NIH research program

Speaking of great rankings and the NIH, senior medical students James Dickey and Jeunice Owens-Walton are among 50 medical, dental and veterinary students nationally selected for the NIH’s Medical Research Scholars Program. James, born in Atlanta and an Emory University graduate, has already worked with our Infectious Disease Division Chief Dr. Jose Vazquez in our Medical Scholars Program, which happens during the summer between medical students’ first and second years. Now he’ll be working with Dr. Daniel S. Chertow, head of the NIH’s Emerging Pathogens Section, for a year looking at the long-term effects of COVID-19. Jeunice, who was born in England but grew up in Albany (a great city sister city for MCG in medical education) is a graduate of Georgia State University and of our summer research program. In our program she worked with Dr. Manuela Bartoli, in the Department of Ophthalmology, one of the great vision scientists (and one I always tease about growing up on the Janiculum Hill in Rome) helping us take a commanding lead in vision research. Now Jeunice will be working in Bethesda, Maryland with Dr. Mark Ball, associate director of the Urologic Oncology Fellowship Program, on her new focus on urogenital malignancies. Our two students are the only students from Georgia selected for this high honor. Great job, James and Jeunice. I know you will continue to make your medical school proud.

The Faculty Senate launching a community wide COVID prevention campaign

Like James will be doing at the NIH, we also will continue to take on COVID. I can assure you that disease has no stronger foes than Dr. Vincent JB Robinson, GE Garrison Distinguished Chair in Cardiovascular Medicine and president of the MCG Faculty Senate, and Dr. Martha S. Tingen, Charles W. Linder MD Endowed Chair in Pediatrics and associate director of Cancer Prevention, Control and Population Health. While our faculty and staff are definitely out there on the topic of understanding, treating and studying the virus and COVID, Drs. Robinson and Tingen were resolute that the state’s only public medical school also must make a concerted effort at a public education campaign focused on protecting us all with scientifically proven measures like social distancing and mask wearing. This Sunday, The Augusta Chronicle, is running a letter to the editor from us, asking our great community to partner with us in this campaign, and we will keep you updated on that. As part of this effort, this week second-year students Rohan Mundkur, from Roswell, Georgia, who went to undergrad at Georgia Tech, and Arianna Sidoti, who grew up between New Jersey and Italy (we will have to hear more about that journey soon) and was an undergrad at Emory University, are putting together a short-form video for social media reminding us all to “mask up.” You will be able to check out their pieces on MCG’s Facebook. These students also are dynamic duo against COVID. They have already created a cloth mask featuring the MCG seal and logo as a fundraiser for the student-run pediatric clinic that operates as part of the Associación Latina de Servicios del CSRA. The bimonthly clinic provides children under 18 with free and accessible health care, including wellness and sick checkups and sports physicals. This is another one of those great win-wins. You can reach the clinic at 706-250-1267 and you can order masks to support the clinic and our students and fight COVID here.    

Please continue to take good care out there and “mask up”.

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