December 10, 2021

Dear Medical College of Georgia Friends,

Dr. Jessica Faulkner honored by AHA, American Physiological Society

Most of us probably think about leptin as the satiety hormone, and most of us probably hope we have plenty of it, particularly this time of year. But, leptin is also a reproductive hormone, required for fertility, that functions as a growth hormone to support fetal growth. We know that fat makes leptin but the placenta makes it as well to help regulate its function. With preeclampsia, a significant increase in blood pressure which impacts fetal growth, and potentially the life of both mother and baby, the placenta is not able to carry out its normal important functions. So, the problematic placenta starts making more leptin probably to see if that helps with baby’s growth. But it actually makes bad matters worse, because in this situation leptin has off-target effects on blood vessels, promoting constriction and further increasing pressure, says our Dr. Jessica Faulkner, vascular pharmacologist and physiologist, who has been studying preeclampsia at least since her PhD days at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. Bottom line: “I think preeclampsia is causing the increase of leptin and that is making the preeclampsia worse.”

Preeclampsia, a condition increasing in incidence, can harm mother and baby

In fact, a model she has developed shows that leptin alone — without a problematic placenta — increases blood pressure, blood vessel dysfunction and restricts fetal growth. She also tells us that while we have known for a while that the placenta starts making a lot more leptin in preeclampsia, what the extra leptin was actually doing really wasn’t known. She appears to have figured that out, and once she better defines the pathways for how it’s worsening the problem, she wants to find ways to target those to help babies and mothers do better. I share this to also share that her work has made a national impact, earning a research recognition award as the top abstract by a junior faculty at the American Heart Association Council on Hypertension Scientific Sessions. Our congratulations to Dr. Faulkner, who did her undergraduate work at AU and her postdoctoral training with our prolific Dr. Eric Belin de Chantemele in the Vascular Biology Center. This summer, she joined the faculty of our Department of Physiology and more recently the faculty of our Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, where she will be working with the also fabulous faculty there studying the placentas of women with preeclampsia and low birthweight babies. This type of bridge between our basic scientists and our physicians is just what we like to see and want to see more of.

Collaboration carries on the work of the late Dr. Ellen Gillis

Dr. Faulkner also recently chaired a session at the American Physiological Society New Trends in Sex and Gender Conference titled: News in Sex Differences in Cardiovascular-Renal Disease. She was also honored this year by the society’s Water and Electrolyte Homeostasis Section with the Juan Carlos Romero Award. The award honors the late physician-scientist who made major contributions to our understanding of how the renin-angiotensin system (basically how the kidneys) contributes to high blood pressure. Additionally, in collaboration with her graduate student Desmond Moronge and Dr. Jennifer Sullivan, pharmacologist and physiologist also in our Department of Physiology, she is carrying on the also clinically relevant work of Dr. Ellen Gillis, senior postdoctoral fellow who died very unexpectedly in June. Like our Dr. Faulkner, Dr. Gillis already was highly accomplished in her field, with a focus on hypertension and its impact particularly in women. She and Dr. Sullivan had just published a paper about their new model that could lead to better understanding of how a significant kidney injury can impact pregnancy, including an increased risk of preeclampsia and a low birthweight baby, even though it looks like the woman has recovered from her injury. I cannot imagine a much better way to honor Dr. Gillis and her too-short legacy than to carry on her important work. Just looking at the work of all these amazing young scientists you see how much work there is to do and, once again, how great so many of you are at doing it. Thank you all.

Dr. Jennifer Sullivan is the new dean of The Graduate School

Speaking of Dr. Sullivan, I wanted to make sure you all know that she is officially dean of The Graduate School. This also prolific, straight-shooting scientist has served as interim dean since July 2020 and it is great to see such commitment and success rewarded. Like Dr. Faulkner, she also completed her postdoctoral training at the Vascular Biology Center (I am seeing a pattern), and has been well-funded, well-published and well-honored her entire career. She has been and will be an enthusiastic promoter of science and education, which will be even more essential as we continue to strategically grow our research initiatives to help people. Congratulations Dr. Sullivan. 

Drs. Fulton and Barman get $2.5 million grant from NHLBI to look at pulmonary hypertension

Our top-flight Vascular Biology Center no doubt is a great place with a tremendous impact in both better understanding cardiovascular disease and educating and inspiring those who will follow in their footsteps. It’s my pleasure to share more objective evidence of that impact with Dr. David Fulton, the VBC’s director, and Dr. Scott Barman, pulmonary vascular biologist, being awarded a new $2.5 million grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute to continue their innovation in the rare but deadly pulmonary hypertension. Please see this powerful story in The Augusta Chronicle  (and picked up by additional outlets including MSN) by Tom Corwin that talks about their work in identifying a gene, called PBK, which is known to be a player in some aggressive cancers with aggressive cell proliferation. Drs. Fulton and Barman have evidence that the gene also is key to the unhealthy thickening of pulmonary arteries which leads to failure of the right ventricle of the heart. Today’s therapies address symptoms, and the scientists think PBK might be a target that more directly addresses the problem. That is particularly good news because with the work in cancer with PBK, there already are PBK inhibitors available to use in their studies. Please let me also note that Caryn Bird, a graduate student working in Dr. Ted Johnson’s laboratory here, bravely shared her experience with pulmonary hypertension with Tom. By doing so she helped us all clearly see the impact of this condition and the real potential for Drs. Barman and Fulton’s work. Thank you all.

Dr. Vanessa Spearman-McCarthy is new associate dean for learner diversity

It pays to have people with passion and purpose. People like Dr. Vanessa Spearman-McCarthy, an internist and psychiatrist and 2005 MCG graduate, who is co-chair of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee of the Association of Medicine and Psychiatry and closer to home co-chairs the same committee for our Faculty Senate. She co-founded the Faculty Senate’s Diversity Champion Award, with the first award rightly going to Linda James, our now retired, long-time assistant dean for student diversity and inclusion. She is the daughter of Dr. Ronald Spearman, a 1974 graduate and one of our first Black graduates. Dr. Spearman-McCarthy is also now our associate dean for learner diversity, who with your help will help create an increasingly diverse physician workforce that well reflects the people, state and nation we serve. She will also help ensure that all our students, residents and fellows understand still-pervasive problems like health care disparities and leave here prepared to help correct these inequities and to ensure that our educational initiatives reflect forward movement. This is vital work and I want to thank Dr. Spearman-McCarthy for taking up this leadership role.                        

Happy holidays to you

Finally today, I want to thank each of you again for the amazing work you do each day at Georgia’s public medical school. While our jobs are tough some days, they are a privilege every day because they matter to people’s lives. I hope that you will have some time over the holidays for yourself and for your family and friends. And please know that because of my family and you, I look toward 2022 with passion and purpose.

All my best.

David C. Hess, MD
Dean, Medical College of Georgia

Leave a Reply