September 3, 2021

Dear Medical College of Georgia Friends,

Dr. Yanbin Dong gets a ‘sweet’ $3 million NIH grant

Those of you who come to see me know that there is pretty much always a bowl of chocolate in my office. As a medical school dean I wish I could tell you it was there because of scientific evidence that chocolate is good for you … but really it’s there because you like it and I like it. Our Dr. Yanbin Dong, geneticist and cardiologist at the Georgia Prevention Institute in the Department of Medicine, is working hard to help us clear up whether I can start using the “it’s good for us” line in good faith. Dr. Dong just received a $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to look directly at the impact of cocoa consumption on aging, specifically inflammaging and epigenetic aging. We talked in the Spring about a major new initiative here to combat the many ill effects, including heart disease and dementia, that come with the heightened, chronic state of inflammation that often occurs with age, and which we now refer to as “inflammaging,” so this fits right in. Epigenetic changes, fairly simply put, are changes to the physical structure of our DNA that can alter gene expression and impact how our cells, and ultimately we, function. While there is some evidence that the flavanols (antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables and other foods we more traditionally think of as good for us) in cocoa are helpful for things like heart health, how cocoa consumption impacts aging has not been well explored, even as cocoa consumption grows, no doubt to some extent because we think/hope it might be good for us. As Dr. Dong aptly puts it: Enthusiasm has outpaced the scientific evidence in humans.

Dr. Dong is objectively exploring whether cocoa can really help us age better

Like any good scientist would, Dr. Dong is starting this work with the amazing amount of pertinent data already out there, collected by his colleagues at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School including Principal Investigators Dr. JoAnn E. Manson and Dr. Howard D. Sesso on the COSMOS Trial (COcoa Supplement and Multivitamin Outcomes Study). COSMOS has collected data from more than 21,000 men and women age 60 and up on the impact of a cocoa extract supplement and/or multivitamins on the risk of major conditions like heart disease, stroke and cancer. COSMOS has blood samples on more than 2,000 of those study participants, and Dr. Dong will be zeroing in on a representative 600 of those participants, analyzing levels of key pro- and anti-inflammatory factors at baseline, and year one and two of the study in those taking the cocoa supplement, a multivitamin, both or neither. He’ll also be doing sophisticated studies looking for signs of gene changes that correlate with aging. His work will have the added benefit of better defining any benefit of multivitamins, a top supplement used by many only because they think it is good for them. I look forward to hearing the results of this work, which is relevant to us all. I also want to thank Dr. Dong for his leadership role at the GPI as we move toward identifying a new director.

Dr. Mykola Mamenko awarded $1.9 million NIH grant to explore sex differences in how we become hypertensive

Dr. Dong joined us in 2002 from St. George’s Hospital Medical School in London, and I am happy to share that his clinically relevant research, which has also included things like the cardiovascular impact of significant mental stress and connecting dots between obesity, salt sensitivity and high blood pressure, has been funded by the NIH during his entire tenure here. You all know that I love science, and it’s good to see in so many of you such commitment to and success in the pursuit of knowledge. It’s also exciting to see early success come together. Dr. Mykola Mamenko in the Department of Physiology joined our faculty in 2017. The young physiologist is a native of the Ukraine who completed his PhD at the Bogomoletz Institute of Physiology there and his post doc work at McGovern Medical School at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, where he would join the faculty before coming here. His focus is the kidneys and their ceaseless work to help regulate the amount of sodium — and consequently water — we retain, which is critical to a healthy blood pressure. He’s already been honored by the American Physiological Society three times for his work in the kidneys, was honored by the Society of Experimental Biology and Medicine with a Young Investigator Award and with the University of Texas Medical School’s Dean’s Excellence in Research Award while still a postdoc in Houston. In fact, he just came to me with the idea of starting a dean’s research award for our postdocs, who are, like our kidneys to our blood pressure, essential to science. And we are doing it. The real awesome news I mainly wanted to share is that he just received his first RO1, a total of nearly $2 million from the NIH, to explore one aspect of something which — unlike the health benefits of chocolate — we all know for sure: males and females are different. He is focusing on how, in the face of hypertension, two different hormones, aldosterone for females and angiotensin II for males, appear to cue the kidneys to hold onto even more sodium and water. The new grant will enable him find out more about the gender differences in what he calls a “break” in blood pressure control, which of course should point we physicians to drugs that better target the specific cause of high blood pressure in an individual so their treatment will work better with less side effects. More to come on this soon but again, really important, relevant to people work that is happening here at Georgia’s public medical school. Great going Drs. Dong and Mamenko.

Dr. Tania Arora elected vice chair of American College of Surgeons Committee on Diversity Issues

We have some serious new and established leaders here no doubt, people who are successful in their own right but always have the bigger picture societal needs in their sights. Dr. Tania K. Arora joined the MCG faculty in 2019. The native of London, England, did a lot of her growing in Virginia, completing her undergraduate work at the University of Virginia, and medical school at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, where she also completed her surgery residency, including a year as chief resident, and a complex general surgery oncology fellowship. Dr. Arora then joined the faculty of Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine based in Scranton (which has a regional campus network similar to ours). Here she is the general surgery residency program director and chairs our GME Subcommittee on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Health Disparities. Now she has been elected vice chair of the American College of Surgeons Committee on Diversity Issues. She already chairs the Association for Surgical Education Committee on Citizenship and Global Responsibility and the Association of Program Directors in Surgery Diversity and Inclusion Committee. Such important work. Thank you Dr. Arora for what you do for MCG, for patients and for the profession of medicine.

Linda James, longtime student, diversity and MCG advocate, retires

We talked last time about welcoming back the familiar face of Dr. Lois T. Ellison to the Dean’s Office. Today we say farewell to a familiar face. Linda James, assistant dean for student diversity and inclusion since 2017 and director of diversity outreach for 13 years before that, has retired. Many of you know her, but you may not know that Linda actually came to us the first two times in 1983 and again in 1986 as a research assistant before going to our neighbors at Paine College, where she would become director of the Pre-Professional Health Sciences Program and Health Careers Opportunity Program Diversity Pipeline. She came back here in 2004, where she began a super-productive and fervent tenure helping lead our diversity and inclusion programs. Her extensive responsibilities have included oversight of SEEP, our now 51-year-old diversity pipeline program for high school and college students, including SEEP’s expansion to Savannah. She worked with our Student National Medical Association on our “Second Look” event for underrepresented in medicine students who have been accepted to MCG, and on the Igniting the Dream of Medicine Conference for high school and undergraduate students which, like most things she touches, have been a great success. She has done a lot, and like so many of you, Linda has succeeded for students and for a better MCG, because she is committed to both, and she and her infinite enthusiasm are already missed. Our best to you always Linda, and thank you so much.

Dr. Martha Tingen and team take the lead in suicide prevention month

I hope you all know that you really do inspire me. As I have said here before, you are the secret sauce of MCG. You go above and well beyond pretty much always because, like Linda, you have a passion for what you do and you know what you do matters. Take Dr. Martha Tingen, associate director for cancer prevention, control and population health at the Georgia Cancer Center. As we have discussed, she and her team, for years, have taken a real leadership and advocacy role in helping adults and children alike avoid things that we do know are bad for us, like drinking and smoking. More recently they added suicide, now a top 10 killer in our state and nation, to the list. One of their many messages is that there is no shame in asking for help and they will be sharing that and much more Sunday, Sept. 12 at 6:35 p.m., at the Augusta GreenJackets game in beautiful SRP Park, just across the river. Dr. Tingen’s team is sponsoring the final fireworks show of the season, handing out resource bags, playing prevention PSAs and more. Tuesday, Sept. 21, at 6 p.m. at the Maxwell Theatre on the Summerville Campus, they will be sharing the documentary My Ascension about young Emma Benoit’s suicide attempt and journey back with everyone who can come. The Tingen team also will have chalk and glow bracelets and a social media campaign all during this month, which is suicide prevention month, to make it clear that there is hope and help. If you have not, please take a few minutes to read about Dr. Tingen’s own inspirational, painful and ongoing journey back from the loss of her oldest son, Nathan, in the newest issue of MCG Medicine magazine.

My thanks again to our health care workers battling COVID

Let me close today by again thanking the amazing frontline of health care providers working harder than ever for patients and against this pandemic, here at our own Health System, in our community, our state and beyond. It is a battle many of us thought and hoped was waning. But, here we still are and there you still are taking care of the people who need you. Thank you and please remember to also take care of yourself.

Please get vaccinated and wear a mask when you are in a confined space so we can get this pandemic behind us.

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