June 14, 2024

Dear Medical College of Georgia Friends,

Dr. Russell Keen named next president of Augusta University

Today, the University System of Georgia named Dr. Russell Keen as the next president of Augusta University, following President Keel’s retirement at the end of this month. I certainly believe they made the right choice for this university and for this medical school. I have had the privilege of working closely with Russell in his role as executive vice president for administration and chief of staff over my seven years as dean. He is an experienced administrator and has proven time and again that he is a champion for our medical school. He understands and appreciates the complexities of medical education and academic medicine, truly values research and is, like me, energized by the incredible work that all of you do here. He is a thoughtful leader who truly listens, a man of great faith, and, as I can personally attest, a talented producer of homegrown vegetables. I am honored to call him a friend and excited to continue working alongside him to grow and strengthen MCG. I also want to take a moment here to thank President Keel for his leadership of this university over the last nine years, which has certainly seen growth in your medical school, including the expansion of our class size, implementation of our innovative 3+ curriculum and the new four-year campus in Savannah, among many other things. Thank you, Dr. Keel. 

Vascular Biology Center research team receives $11.3 million Program Project grant

More great news came last week when we learned that after over four years of dedicated perseverance, the dynamic husband and wife team of Drs. Tohru Fukai and Masuko Ushio-Fukai, from our Vascular Biology Center, will lead a team of investigators in a new $11.3 million, five-year, NIH Program Project grant that ultimately seeks to understand the underlying mechanisms of cardiovascular disease. Long and complex story short, when the endothelial cells that line our blood vessels become dysfunctional it can lead to cardiovascular disease. One of the reasons these cells become dysfunctional is because there is an imbalance between reactive oxygen species, or ROS, and reactive nitrogen species, or RNS – essentially too much oxidative stress and not enough nitric oxide, which helps our vessels relax. This “redox imbalance” is what ultimately leads to disease and while there have been attempts to reduce ROS or increase nitric oxide, those strategies have had limited success because of a complex interplay between their beneficial and destructive effects. More recent findings have also suggested that endothelial cells can actually reprogram their metabolism to meet the demands of their environment — to a type of metabolism called aerobic glycolysis, which is called the Warburg Effect in cancer cells — and that can also shift redox balance in a negative way.

Scope includes three major projects and three supporting research cores

Of course, undertaking such a huge and complicated problem — nearly half of all U.S. adults have some type of cardiovascular disease — also requires a large and collaborative team, which the Fukais have thoughtfully assembled. The PPG is comprised of three separate projects. Project 1 is led by Dr. Tohru Fukai, who will investigate the role of copper metabolism in altering endothelial metabolism to promote atherosclerosis. Project 2 is led by vascular biologist Dr. Eric Belin de Chantemele and director of the VBC, Dr. David Fulton, who will study the role of sex and the satiety hormone, leptin, in redox imbalance and vascular disease in Type 1 diabetes. And Project 3 is led by Dr. Masuko Ushio-Fukai who will examine how oxidative changes in the mitochondria impact metabolism, redox signaling and blood vessel formation in diabetes.

These projects are further supported by three research cores – an administrative core with biostatistics investigators, led by the Fukais; an animal and metabolic phenotype analytic core, led by Dr. David Stepp; and an endothelial cell analytic core, led by Drs. Fulton and Rudolf Lucas. This team, which is also supported by an incredibly talented group of trainees, technicians and administrative staff, is yet another example of the type of collaborative and cutting-edge science MCG is known for. It brings together experts from across the medical school and even from other universities with the common goal of reducing the rates of one of our nation’s top killers. Great work and my congratulations to you all.

Dr. Meghan McGee Lawrence receives National Institute on Aging grant to study crosstalk between tissues and how that changes with age

Here’s another example of the great teamwork that is an MCG hallmark. Bone biologist and interim chair of our Department of Cellular Biology and Anatomy Dr. Meghan McGee Lawrence has received $2.4 million from the National Institute on Aging to study the crosstalk between bone, the adrenal glands, the muscle and fat in our bodies and how that changes as we age. As we all know, tissues don’t function in isolation – everything in the body “talks” to everything else to keep people healthy across the lifespan. So, perhaps the best approach to understanding how that talk first happens, and then changes, as we age, would be by assembling a team with a wide variety of expertise? Lucky for us, when the NIA was looking for grant proposals that included such teams, we were at the ready…because of how well we collaborate here at MCG. I am beginning to sense a theme.

Dr. McGee Lawrence has assembled another great group that includes experts from our Adrenal Center, the Center for Healthy Aging and even the AU College of Allied Health Sciences to examine mineralcorticoid receptors, which are best understood as a key regulator of blood pressure, and have been studied extensively here in things like adipose tissue, our kidneys and cardiovascular tissue. Dr. McGee Lawrence and her team believe they are also implicated in the way stress hormones affect our skeleton. Key team members include Dr. Carlos Isales, director of the Center for Healthy Aging; again, Dr. Belin de Chantemele from the VBC; Dr. Wendy Bollag, a cell physiologist who is an expert in the biology of the adrenal gland; and Dr. Kate Kosmac, from the AU Department of Physical Therapy who is an expert in skeletal muscle. To quote Dr. McGee Lawrence here, the science we can all do together is so much better than the science we can do in silos, and that makes us all better. I could not agree more.

Community initiative aimed at area youth is a finalist in NIH national challenge competition

Here’s yet another example of great collaboration and how it leads to better results for the people we are privileged to care for. Just this week we learned that a team led by Dr. Christy Ledford, vice chair of research in our Department of Family and Community Medicine and Britney Pooser, executive director of the Hub for Community Innovation, was selected as a finalist in the NIH Build UP Trust Challenge.  Build UP Trust is a competition that aims to identify solutions that increase research participation and the adoption of medical care by building trust and improving engagement with historically underserved American communities. The team will receive a $45,000 award as finalists in the program and recognition of a project called Community Outreach through Athletics in Colleges and High Schools (COACHS), which connects athletic trainers with Richmond County schools. These trainers then work to build personal relationships with students, provide care and act as a bridge to the health care system for students who may feel uncomfortable, mistrust the health care system, or lack insurance coverage. This prize will help expand COACHS and enable these trainers to identify the needs of students and refer them to the Hub, where they can receive support services like health care through Harrisburg Family Health Care, mentorship at the Boys and Girls Club, nutritional services at Augusta Locally Grown, educational support at the Dr. Paulette Harris Literacy Center, and workforce and life skills training at RISE Augusta. As finalists in the competition, the team will now compete for one of up to four prizes of up to $200,000 in Phase 2 by demonstrating their successes. This will definitely be a team effort and include work from a group that also includes Dr. Chris Ledford, director of our Sports Medicine Fellowship (and Christy’s husband); behavioralist Dr. Jessica Britt-Thomas; internist/psychiatrist Dr. Vanessa Spearman-McCarthy; family physician Dr. Ebony Whisenant; and Dr. Lillie Williamson, an expert in mistrust and distrust in Black communities. I would also be remiss not to note that the first iteration of this program – placing athletic trainers in schools – was the brainchild of Dr. Monte Hunter, chair of orthopaedic surgery.

A few additional points of pride here. Our team is the only finalist in Georgia and is among other teams from places like UAB, Brigham and Women’s and Montefiore Medical Center. Thank you all for your commitment to underserved communities and for your innovative approach to engaging and ultimately improving the care they receive.

Outstanding community clinical faculty honored at Statewide Faculty Development Conference

In our last Dean’s Diary you’ll remember that I talked about our annual Statewide Faculty Development Conference, which is always a great opportunity to show our community clinical faculty how much they are valued. It is always so refreshing and inspiring to get to meet these “boots on the ground” energetic and impassioned physician educators who volunteer their time to teach our medical students in every corner of our state. We don’t get the chance to thank them enough and ask them how we can better support them, but this was one of those chances.

I wanted to share with you all this week the five among them who were selected by their respective campuses to receive Faculty of the Year awards. This year’s recipients were from the Athens Campus, Dr. Albert Johary, an internist from Dunwoody; from the Northwest Campus, Dr. Billy Chacko, a vascular medicine physician in Rome; from the Southeast Campus, Dr. Gifford Lorenz, a Savannah pulmonologist; from the Southwest Campus, Dr. Grant Major, a general surgeon from LaGrange; and from Wellstar, Dr. Louis Lovett, a pulmonary/critical care physician who also leads that health system’s GME programs. Congratulations on these well-deserved recognitions.

I also want to thank our Academic Affairs team and congratulate them on a fantastic conference, particularly Dr. Michelle Krupp, our associate dean for faculty development, and support staff Lauren Watkins and Tracey Barton. I heard nothing but great things while we were in Jekyll and I’m already looking forward to next year!

My best to you all,

Dean Hess Signature

David C. Hess, MD

Dean, Medical College of Georgia

Upcoming Events

June 21 – MCG Faculty Senate Meeting, noon, Natalie and Lansing B. Lee Jr. Auditorium