Dear Medical College of Georgia Friends,

New NIH-funded biomedical science training program focuses on cardiometabolic diseases common in minorities

One definition of perseverance is steadfastness. That is also one definition of you, the faculty, staff, students, residents and fellows of the Medical College of Georgia. You see something that needs doing and, no matter how busy you already are, you do it, because it is the right and logical thing to do. As dean, I am privileged to witness this time and again, but I can’t help but be amazed and proud each time. One of the latest examples is the awarding of a $1.5 million National Institutes of Health training grant to grow the next generation of scientists who focus on cardiometabolic diseases — hypertension, obesity and diabetes — which are directly relevant to the health of minorities. Dr. Jennifer Sullivan, pharmacologist and physiologist and interim dean of The Graduate School at AU, and Dr. David Stepp, vascular biologist and graduate program director for the VBC, will codirect this new predoctoral program for PhD and MD/PhD students with the desire to pursue this worthwhile path. As most of you know, these conditions, which have a compounding effect, are far too pervasive in our state and nation overall, and they tend to impact minorities at an even younger age and with more severe disease. See this recent work by Georgia Prevention Institute Investigator Dr. Gaston Kapuku as a prime example of the disparity.

The new program plans to accept four PhD or MD/PhD students this Spring

We talk often about how Georgia’s only public medical school is taking on the top causes of death and disease in our state and nation. Our existing strength in cardiometabolic diseases is the top example of that effort. We have significant research underway in places like our Vascular Biology Center, Departments of Physiology and Medicine and the GPI to better understand, mitigate and ideally prevent these conditions. We provide great care to individuals who already have these conditions through strong clinical work in our Divisions of Cardiology; Cardiovascular Surgery; Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism; and the Bariatric Center for Obesity and Metabolism. The new biomedical scientist training program is a perfect fit for what we already have to offer and for our commitment to a healthier future. It’s also a perfect fit for our state where more than 40% of our citizens are minority and where health disparities are rampant. I want to particularly thank Drs. Sullivan and Stepp for their work to make this new program possible. I want to thank as well Sandy Ferguson and Kara MacVean, grant development specialists in the VBC and Physiology Department, respectively, who were key to putting together this training grant and as they are to the submission of essentially every successful grant in their areas. Federal funding for a training program is extremely competitive and success requires perseverance. Dr. Stepp tells us we hope to start recruiting the first four students this Spring. Exciting, awesome work. Thank you all.

Dr. Ahmed Chadli receives $1.8 million NCI grant to pursue new cancer-fighting compound

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in Georgia and the U.S., and through our Georgia Cancer Center we also are continuing to build treatment and science to take cancer on. I am pleased to share that Biochemist Dr. Ahmed Chadli has received a $1.8 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to help him pursue a novel treatment to thwart one of cancer’s malevolent maneuvers. To simplify another complex story, HSP90 is a major mechanism our healthy cells use to protect themselves from major stress. Like so many healthy cell functions, cancer cells usurp this ability of HSP90 to protect themselves.  HSP90 inhibitors seem a logical target and continue to be explored, but unfortunately their benefit to date has not been as significant as you might expect, with serious side effects and sometimes by inadvertently supporting cancer’s survival. Undaunted, Chadli went looking for another way. With the help of Dr. Abdessamad Debbab, a medicinal chemist at the Institute for Pharmaceutical Biology and Biotechnology at Heinrich-Heine-University Düsseldorf Chadli met a while back at a pharmacology society meeting in his native Morocco, he found EnnA. The compound is isolated from a fungus found growing on the roots of a flowering Moroccan plant. Chadli and his research team have early evidence that EnnA is a proficient HSP90 inhibitor that also enables our T cells to better see and attack the cancer. So far in his studies, he has not seen the side effects associated with other inhibitors. What he has seen is big holes appearing in the previously solid triple negative breast cancer tumor and a host of immune cells moving in for attack. He thinks and has some evidence that the compound might be more broadly applicable to other breast cancer types as well as other solid tumor types like melanoma. As we talked about earlier, Dr. Chadli has been diligent in seeing what needs doing and finding a way to do it. You can read more about his work from Tom Corwin in The Augusta Chronicle and elsewhere soon.

Dr. Meghan McGee-Lawrence receives NASA grant to study bone loss

Aging and related problems like bone and muscle weakness are another big health problem and research focus here, and our Dr. Meghan McGee-Lawrence, biomedical engineer in the Department of Cellular Biology and Anatomy, is a tough adversary of bone loss. As we were all hearing news of the landing of the newest rover — appropriately named Perseverance — on Mars yesterday, she was working to protect the bone health of our astronauts in space as well as those with conditions like a spinal cord injury. Because without the forces gravity and muscle regularly put on our bones, our bones can rapidly weaken. Evidence shows that even with efforts like resistance training, astronauts can lose, per month, nearly 2% of their bone mineral density in important weight-bearing places like the hips and knees. When it’s actual humans rather than rovers making the seven-month journey to Mars, you can imagine the collective toll. You can also imagine what happens to individuals who are confined to a wheelchair or are bedridden. Dr. McGee-Lawrence recently received a $750,000 grant from NASA to learn more about how our bones sense and respond to the usual forces with the ultimate goal of finding a way to better protect the bones of all these individuals. Good effort, and keep us posted, Dr. McGee-Lawrence.

Dr. Brian Stansfield named vice chair for research, Department of Pediatrics

One more research note: Dr. Brian Stansfield, neonatologist, federally funded physician scientist and 2004 MCG graduate, is the new vice chair for research for our Department of Pediatrics. Dr. Stansfield recently completed a term as president of the Southern Society for Pediatric Research, is an abstract reviewer for the society and Pediatric Academic Societies and a section editor for Pediatric Research. Closer to home he is our 2018 Outstanding Young Clinical Science Faculty Award winner who recently helped lead an analysis of existing pediatric research and outline a vision for the Department of Pediatrics that supports the medical school’s strengths and the health needs of children. I appreciate Dr. Stansfield’s already significant contributions and his willingness to help lead this essential aspect of what we do.

Otolaryngology residency program has seven straight years with no citations from the ACGME

Dr. Stansfield is a great example of why MCG and great medical education are synonymous. Here’s another. Our Department of Otolaryngology just had its seventh annual reaccreditation visit from the Accreditation Council on Graduate Medical Education without a single citation for our otolaryngology residency program. That means this five-year program that is training a total of 13 residents in a system that alternates between accepting two applicants one year and three the next, is doing an outstanding job. Caroline Cook, residency program coordinator, tell us there were 375 applicants for the two positions that will be matching next month. My thanks to Caroline, Otolaryngology Chair Dr. Stil Kountakis, Residency Program Director (and MCG graduate) Dr. Drew Prosser and Associate Program Director Dr. W. Greer Albergotti III and all the strong faculty and staff in Otolaryngology for their continued success with training the next generation. Also, special thanks to past Program Director Dr. Michael Groves, who did such an excellent job laying the groundwork for this accreditation we tapped him as associate dean for GME. Groves directed the otolaryngology program residency from 2014 until he assumed his new job July 1. Strong traditions with strong results.

Dr. Tammy Jane Robinson, 1990 MCG graduate, Douglasville physician, passes

Finally today, as Georgia’s only public medical school we also talk a lot about recruiting students with a passion to practice in Georgia. Dr. Tammy Jane Robinson, a 1990 MCG graduate, was one of those students. She was salutatorian of her Douglas County High School class, who completed her family medicine residency at Floyd Medical Center in Rome before joining her father’s practice in Douglasville, a place she loved. Her father, the late Dr. Clark Robinson, a 1961 MCG graduate who served as a Merchant Marine during World War II, practiced alone in Douglasville for 30 years — even made some house calls — until his daughter joined him. Our thoughts are with Dr. Robinson’s family and friends as well as the people of Douglasville on the loss of their second Dr. Robinson. Please continue to take good care out there, wear a mask and get vaccinated.

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