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Faculty News

Nation’s longest kidney transplant chain reaches 34
Nation’s longest kidney transplant chain reaches 34
The UAB kidney chain, which began December 2013 and expects more transplants in January 2015, ‘showcases the power of the human spirit in every aspect.’

tommy thompson web“This will be my first time to be a healthy person. You don’t know what that means. It’s hard to describe what that means. I just know I’m looking forward to it, and I can’t wait,” said Thompson.Tommy Thompson was born in December of 1973 with a horseshoe kidney, a condition in which the kidneys fuse together at the lower end during fetal development. It’s a debilitating disorder that led to more than 40 surgeries of different types for Thompson by the time he was a young adult. Some of the surgeries were aimed at correcting the condition; others were an attempt to make dialysis possible so he could stay alive.

Finally, on Dec. 19 in UAB Hospital at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, at age 41, Thompson had the surgery he has needed most — a living-donor kidney transplant. Thompson received his kidney through UAB’s record-breaking kidney chain. The chain, which began in December 2013, has matched 34 living donors with 34 recipients to create the longest kidney-transplant chain ever recorded in the United States; previously, the longest chain on record involved 30 donors and recipients in 17 hospitals around the country. All 34 recipients in the UAB kidney chain have been transplanted at UAB Hospital or Children’s of Alabama.

In Thompson’s case, the transplant is a prayer that the minister from Cantonment, Florida, says has been answered.

“One of the reasons this transplant is so special to me is that I’ve never been a healthy dad. I’ve never been a healthy husband or preacher,” Thompson said. “This will be my first time to be a healthy person. You don’t know what that means. It’s hard to describe what that means. I just know I’m looking forward to it, and I can’t wait.”

Thompson’s transplant was made possible the same way the previous 33 transplants in the chain were — by the selflessness of a total stranger. Thompson received his kidney from 38-year-old Chicago, Illinois, native Linda Hessenberger, who donated on behalf of her aunt, Cathy Vandiver of Tuscumbia, Alabama. Vandiver received her kidney from Mobile, Alabama, native Felisa Goodwin on Dec. 11.

“My Aunt Cathy is not one to complain, and I didn’t really know how bad she needed a kidney until I was visiting my mom this past summer,” Hessenberger said. “But Cathy told us what was going on, and it really bummed me out. I filled out the information online to be a potential donor, and they contacted me to come in and be tested, and everything went pretty quickly after that. It was just something I felt like I had to do; it was something I wanted to do. The fact that I got to help my aunt and someone else by donating on her behalf … is just awesome. It just makes it that much more special.”

A desire and willingness to help others is the reason this chain has reached a record 34 transplants, says Jayme Locke, M.D., surgical director of the Incompatible Kidney Transplant Program in UAB Hospital and coordinator of the chain.

hessenberger vandiver"It was just something I felt like I had to do; it was something I wanted to do. The fact that I got to help my aunt and someone else by donating on her behalf … is just awesome. It just makes it that much more special,” said Linda Hessenberger, left, with Aunt Cathy Vandiver.“From the very beginning, this chain has represented a real sense of community,” Locke said. “Every person involved has wanted to give back and give to others, which is why we have been able to help people beyond what many chains in the country and around the world have ever been able to do. This sense of community and commitment is truly unique, especially here in Alabama and the Southeast. It’s a very powerful story.”

The chain began Dec. 5, 2013, with Pelham, Alabama, resident and donor Paula Kok, who approached UAB about the possibility of donating a kidney to someone in need and was committed to donating a kidney despite not having an intended recipient.

In a paired transplant chain, a donation like Kok’s can set off a series of transplants in which family or friends of recipients give a kidney to another person in need — essentially paying donations forward on behalf of a loved one.

Kok’s altruistic gift launched a chain of transplants that changed the lives of people in nine states — Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Louisiana, Texas, Illinois and New Jersey — and even endured a January snowstorm that crippled the Southeast the week of Jan. 27.

Kok’s decision to donate to someone — anyone — in need still resonates with donors and recipients a full year later.

“It’s a very selfless thing for someone to come forward and be willing to donate to start something like this,” said John Woolard, the 33rd donor in the chain. “That is a huge commitment, which undoubtedly makes an impact on others. Following after someone is easier oftentimes than taking the first step. It’s a testament to God’s grace and His example of how He can use one person to reach many.”

Selwyn Vickers, M.D., senior vice president for Medicine and dean of UAB’s School of Medicine, says the kidney chain highlights UAB’s commitment to academic excellence and clinical innovation for lifesaving treatments that reach beyond standard clinical techniques. “The goal of our programs,” he said, “is to have a resounding impact on health care across the country. This kidney-transplant chain demonstrates our pledge.”

“This chain really showcases the power of the human spirit in every aspect. Every one of these individuals involved possesses special gifts — determination, love for their fellow man, a thirst for knowledge and passion. These are precious gifts that encapsulate the very essence of life. Our entire staff is honored to serve these families and be a part of each of their journeys.”

Vickers also pointed to the hard work and dedication of numerous surgeons, nephrologists, nurses, kidney-transplant coordinators and support staff as an instrumental part of the success of the incompatible kidney-transplant program. Vickers says this devotion, along with the perseverance of the transplant recipients, donors and their families, made this chain possible.

“What has been accomplished with this chain speaks to the commitment of numerous people — especially the transplant recipients, donors, and our entire UAB transplant surgical, clinical and research teams,” Vickers said. “This chain really showcases the power of the human spirit in every aspect. Every one of these individuals involved possesses special gifts — determination, love for their fellow man, a thirst for knowledge and passion. These are precious gifts that encapsulate the very essence of life. Our entire staff is honored to serve these families and be a part of each of their journeys.”

Sixty-seven of the 68 surgeries in the chain to date have been performed at UAB Hospital. One recipient, 15-year-old Ryane Burns of Union, Mississippi, was transplanted at Children’s of Alabama, making it the only program in the Southeast to offer living-kidney paired donation to recipients younger than 18.

UAB’s program — theSouth’s leading incompatible kidney-transplant program — makes transplantation possible between some donors and recipients who otherwise would not match. It also fills a major need in Alabama, where more than 3,700 men, women and children are on the nation’s second-largest waiting list for a kidney transplant.

Living-donor kidney transplantation is not rare, but many programs require a completely compatible match. Consequently, many of the transplants UAB surgeons perform, including several in this chain, would not have occurred through a national paired-exchange program.UAB’s program offers patients pretreatmentto overcome blood group and/or HLA barriers to compatibility. Paired donations also improve compatibility and make the transplants less challenging. UAB’s program of combining desensitization with paired donation is unique in the Southeast.

“UAB has become a national leader in kidney transplantation since performing our program’s first kidney transplant in 1968,” said Devin Eckhoff, M.D., director of UAB’s Division of Transplantation. “Our kidney program has done more living-donor transplants than any other program in the United States since 1987, and it is one of the three largest kidney-transplant centers in the nation. Our experience in performing kidney transplants from living donors ensures the highest level of care and better outcomes for our patients — both kidney donors and recipients.”

The chain doesn’t end with Thompson; more transplants are planned in January 2015. Denise Prewitt is a bridge donor who is expected to be part of the chain in the New Year. She is donating on behalf of Marjorie Wilhite who received her kidney this past summer.

“I’m excited and ready to help when it’s my turn,” Prewitt said. “This chain is just amazing to me, totally wonderful. I’ve always been a blood and plasma donor. Anything I can do to help is just an honor.”

Thompson, for one, says he will always be grateful to those who chose to give before and after him.

“I think this chain goes to show that we never know the power of the one life we have, how many people you can touch,” Thompson said. “It’s amazing to know that all of these transplants come from one person who was willing to give of herself. That’s just a powerful thought. To know that in your one life, you can touch so many.”

Read more about the UAB kidney chain, including stories from many of those involved, atwww.uab.edu/kidneychain, and join the conversation online atwww.facebook.com/uabkidneychainand on Twitter at #uabkidneychain.

To become a living-kidney donor, visit uabmedicine.org/kidneytransplant, or to indicate your interest in donating your organs after death, visit www.organdonor.gov and sign up today.

UAB looks to build on many 2014 successes in the new year
UAB looks to build on many 2014 successes in the new year
Looking forward to a promising 2015, UAB News revisits some top stories of 2014.

campusThe University of Alabama at Birmingham experienced many successes and milestones in 2014, including student accomplishments, faculty hires, records set, campus improvements, groundbreaking research and more.

In 2014, UAB saw its sixth straight year of record overall enrollment, with 18,698 students. In its inaugural year, 45 students enrolled in Blazing Start, a program that encourages student success through intensive advising and ongoing academic support, and 361 students took advantage of the Joint Admissions program. The Honors College, which offers experiential learning opportunities and includes the signature University Honors Program, Science and Technology Honors Program, and Global and Community Leadership Honors Program, had its largest-ever incoming freshman class of 375 students, with an average grade-point average of 4.1.

The growing student body is complemented by growth in facilities. In January 2014, the new Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts opened to the public and has hosted more than 5,000 visitors to date. The first major show by an artist of global renown at the AEIVA is the “Warhol: Fabricated” exhibition, coming Jan. 9-Feb. 28, 2015.

The new UAB Student Health and Wellness Center opened in September 2014. It boasts 23,000 square feet of space dedicated to the health, counseling and wellness needs of UAB students. A new freshman residence hall will open in summer 2015 and will house more than 700 students. By the fall semester, students, faculty and staff will enjoy the new 159,000-square-foot UAB Student Center, which will be home to student services and activities, as well as Full Moon Bar-B-Que, Panera Bread, Mein Bowl and Starbucks.

“Excitement for the construction of a new student center is growing,” said Carolyn Farley, director of Academic and Student Services. “This incredible building will create a much better student experience.”

Thousands of middle and high school students in Alabama’s Black Belt will be on the path to higher education in 2015, as UAB recently secured the largest nonhealth-related grant in its history to lead the U.S. Department of Education’s Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) grant program in Alabama. The UAB School of Education has been awarded a seven-year, $49 million grant to increase the number of low-income students prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education. UAB will serve as the hub of GEAR UP Alabama. This is the first time Alabama has been awarded funds from GEAR UP, which began in 1998.

UAB is making significant investments in UAB Teach, which gives undergraduate students studying science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines the ability to enhance career opportunities while improving education across Alabama.

UAB honors student Ameen Barghi was elected to the Rhodes Scholar Class of 2015. He is one of 32 outstanding students in the United States who will start their all-expenses-paid, graduate educations at Oxford University next fall. Barghi is the third UAB student since 2000 named as a Rhodes Scholar.

Barghi, 22, was able to work on computational analyses of MRI neuroimaging, publishing five papers in peer-reviewed research journals as part of the lab of Edward Taub, Ph.D., a world-renowned behavioral neuroscientist in UAB’s psychology department in the UAB College of Arts and Sciences.

“I had the opportunity to learn clinical neuroscience at its finest,” Barghi said. “I’m getting experiences at UAB that kids from the best institutions around the world can’t get.”

Barghi was admitted to UAB’s Early Medical School Acceptance Program. The EMSAP gives highly qualified students an enriched undergraduate experience, with promised admission to the UAB School of Medicine after successful undergraduate work. Barghi is a double-major in the UAB Undergraduate Neuroscience Program, which is run jointly by the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Medicine, and is working toward an individually designed major in translational research. He is enrolled in the UAB Honors College in the Science and Technology Honors Program, as well as the Business Honors Program at the UAB Collat School of Business.

Some of the transformational research produced yearly by UAB investigators is supported in part by funding from the National Institutes of Health. In 2014, UAB NIH funding increased by 20 percent to $225 million, which puts UAB 10th among public universities, and several of its schools highly ranked nationally.

This funding success helped bring about a partnership between UAB and the Southern Research Institute, developer of seven FDA-approved cancer drugs, to develop new medical devices to improve health care in the U.S. and around the globe. This strategic partnership, which is called the Alliance for Innovative Medical Technology (AIMTech), combines the research and discovery expertise of Southern Research Institute scientists and engineers UAB biomedical engineers and clinicians from the UAB School of Engineering. They will take a patient-centric approach to medical technology development.

In 2014, countless published articles from UAB-affiliated authors appeared on ScienceDirect, the world’s leading source for scientific, technical and medical research. Over the last four years, UAB articles published on ScienceDirect combined for an average of more than 1 million downloads a year.

The New England Journal of Medicine, the most widely read general medical periodical in the world, published its Top Articles of 2013 in early 2014, with five Top 10 lists that represent the most popular content among NEJM physician-readers. Myths, Presumptions, and Facts about Obesity, published in NEJM on Jan. 30, 2013, by an international team of researchers led by David B. Allison, Ph.D., associate dean for science in the UAB School of Public Health, made three of the Top 10 lists.

UAB’s cybercrime experts have global influence, and for the second year in a row, the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security took note by designating UAB as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance and Cyber Defense Research. UAB takes an interdisciplinary approach to its research in these fields, stemming from the innovation of the Center for Information Assurance and Joint Forensics Research. Faculty from schools and departments across campus, including the Department of Computer and Information Sciences, the Department of Justice Sciences, and the Collat School of Business, all play an integral role in furthering education and research in information assurance and joint forensics through the center’s efforts.

As 2014 showed with the Ebola virus, viral infections with limited or no treatment options can pose a major global health threat. A new national research consortium centered at UAB and led by the UAB School of Medicine, the Antiviral Drug Discovery and Development Center, or AD3C, will focus on the discovery of new and better drug therapies as these viruses emerge. The center is funded by an up to $35 million, five-year grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

AD3C principal investigator and program director Richard Whitley, M.D., Distinguished Professor of Pediatrics and director of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, says the creation of the Alabama Drug Discovery Alliance in 2008 by UAB and Southern Research Institute helped make this new center possible.

“UAB and SRI have spent a lot of time, money and energy developing the ADDA over the last five years,” Whitley said. “This grant shows how that investment can pay off.”

A UAB School of Optometry researcher is studying a leading cause of death among newborns worldwide. Group B Streptococcus is a bacterium carried by about 40 percent of healthy women, and as many as 25 percent pass it to their infants during birth, despite screening and preventive treatment. Narayana Sthanam, Ph.D., professor of structural biology in the School of Optometry, is working to discover how it escapes the mother’s natural defense systems in hopes that knowledge will lead to a therapeutic intervention. His research is funded by a $1 million R01 grant from the NIH/NIAID.

The start of 2015 will see recruitment begin for a potentially groundbreaking human clinical trial to test a drug shown to completely reverse diabetes in human islets and mice. The three-year, $2.1 million trial funded by the JDRF, known as “the repurposing of verapamil as a beta cell survival therapy in type 1 diabetes,” has come to fruition after more than a decade of research efforts in UAB’s Comprehensive Diabetes Center. Too much of the protein TXNIP – which is increased within pancreatic beta cells in response to diabetes – leads to cell death and thwarts the body’s efforts to produce insulin, thereby contributing to the progression of diabetes.

“We have previously shown that verapamil can prevent diabetes and even reverse the disease in mouse models and reduce TXNIP in human islet beta cells, suggesting that it may have beneficial effects in humans as well,” said Anath Shalev, M.D., principal investigator of the verapamil clinical trial and director of the Comprehensive Diabetes Center.

The nation’s largest single-site kidney transplant chain will also continue into 2015 at UAB. The UAB kidney chain began Dec. 5, 2013, and was featured nationally on the ABC News program “Nightline” on July 3, 2014, and across multiple news outlets. The program featured several members of the current chain and showcased the work of UAB Medicine physicians, nurses and staff who helped make this lifesaving, complex chain a reality.

“To me, these are miracles,” said Jayme Locke, M.D., surgical director of the Incompatible Kidney Transplant Program UAB’s School of Medicine and coordinator of the chain. “From our perspective, this is a significant achievement for the 100,000 people around the country on the waiting list for a transplant, including almost 4,000 people here in Alabama.”

Cancer survivors will continue to have the opportunity to cope, heal and grow, thanks to Harvest for Health, a UAB study that pairs cancer survivors with master gardeners from the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. Harvest for Health began with a pilot study in Jefferson County, Alabama, in 2011.

“We asked the question ‘If cancer survivors started a vegetable garden, would they eat more vegetables?’” said Wendy Demark-Wahnefried, Ph.D., R.D., associate director for Cancer Prevention and Control in the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center and a professor in the Department of Nutrition Sciences in the UAB School of Health Professions. “We found they not only ate more vegetables, they also got more exercise. And their physical functioning improved dramatically,” she said, noting that the study has since been expanded to many counties surrounding Birmingham, along with the Cullman, Montgomery, Mobile and Dothan areas, with support from the National Cancer Institute.

Efforts of a new clinical research program to combat chronic pain and fatigue will be ongoing in 2015 and will be led by Jarred Younger, Ph.D., who came to UAB in 2014 from Stanford University’s School of Medicine. He has a primary appointment in the Department of Psychology and secondary appointments in the Department of Anesthesiology and the Division of Clinical Immunology and Rheumatology.

Younger’s work at Stanford yielded new treatments for pain and fatigue, and he is continuing that work at UAB. “We believe that, in many cases when someone is suffering from chronic pain or fatigue, they may be suffering from low-level inflammation in their brain,” Younger said. “We are investigating ways to return the brain to its normal state.”

The UAB School of Nursing and Birmingham VA Medical Center are again expanding their 43-year-old partnership and the focus on veterans' mental health needs. Created with a five-year grant from the Veterans Health Administration to the Birmingham VAMC, the two are partnering on the VA Nursing Academic Partnerships in Graduate Education (VANAP-GE), the only one of its kind in the country, and will put 48 new psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioners into the VA workforce over the next five years.

The School of Nursing’s ongoing partnership with the Birmingham VAMC played a role in the site’s selection, says Cynthia Selleck, Ph.D., R.N., FNP, the School’s associate dean for Clinical and Global Partnerships. Since 2008, the two institutions have worked together on several key projects, including the VA Nursing Academy Partnership, which teams VA Medical Centers with accredited schools of nursing with the goal of providing compassionate, highly educated nurses to meet the health care needs of America’s heroes.

The UAB School of Dentistry has secured several grants to improve oral health care and access in Alabama and is applying for more to continue widening its scope. With the help of community collaborations, the School of Dentistry has the ability to use its resources to improve the oral health of Alabamians and positively shape the education of the students within the school.

“We like our students to be exposed to these types of activities and initiatives because it gives them a broader perspective,” said Allen Conan Davis, DMD, assistant dean for Community Collaborations and Public Health in the School of Dentistry. “Many of our students choose to do a year’s extension program with a general practice residency, and we want to provide opportunities in the state so they will stay here. By locating them in nearby areas, we hope they will choose to practice in these areas, too.”

UAB will also continue using arts education to empower young people in the Woodlawn community through the ArtReach program, which has had over 1,500 participants since its inception. ArtReach is an endeavor of ArtPlay, the Alys Stephens Performing Arts Center’s home for arts education.

ArtPlay will present two premieres for the upcoming 2015 season: “The Clever George Washington Carver” on Saturday, Feb. 21, and DanceE’s “A DanceE Wild Rumpus” on Sunday, April 26.

The ASC’s new season of shows will feature legendary and rising artists including Branford Marsalis, The Jung Trio, Arlo Guthrie, Aaron Neville Duo, the Wailers, California and Montreal Guitar Trios, Diana Krall, Australia’s Sway Poles, Steve Winwood, and Dr. John and the Nite Trippers. Young Concert Artists and rising stars Andrew Tyson and Julia Bullock will bookend the season and perform as part of the intimate ArtPlay Parlor Music Series. For tickets, a copy of The Center Magazine or more information, call 205-975-2787 or visit www.AlysStephens.org.

The Campaign for UAB: Give Something, Change Everything, the institution’s largest-ever philanthropic campaign that will run through 2018, continues to support efforts of the institution that advance faculty excellence, support research innovation and economic development, enrich the student experience, develop programmatic support, and enhance UAB’s facilities. In 2014, UAB reached the halfway point to its ambitious $1 billion goal.

To read more about UAB’s top stories of 2014, visit www.uab.edu/news.

UAB enrolls nation’s first patient in Phase III drug trial for preeclampsia
UAB enrolls nation’s first patient in Phase III drug trial for preeclampsia
Best of 2014 2If successful, the PRESERVE-1 trial could be a significant clinical breakthrough in the treatment of the condition by prolonging pregnancy and improving outcomes.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology has enrolled the first patient in the United States in a Phase III clinical trial for a drug to treat preeclampsia in pregnant women that, if successful, would be a significant clinical breakthrough for reducing pre-term births and infant mortality.

ATryn®, or antithrombin recombinant, will be administered to treat preeclampsia in pregnant women during the 24th to 28th week of pregnancy as part of the PRESERVE-1 trial. The randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial will assess whether ATryn, produced by rEVO Biologics Inc., prolongs pregnancy in mothers with early-onset preeclampsia and reduces the high rates of perinatal mortality and disability it causes.

“Currently, when patients have preeclampsia, all we have to offer is delivery of the baby as the ultimate treatment,” said Alan Tita, M.D., Ph.D., professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology in UAB’s School of Medicine and a lead investigator for the trial. “If preeclampsia presents early in the pregnancy, it has serious implications for both mother and baby. For the target group, women in their 24th to 28th week of pregnancy, this could be a substantial advance in the treatment of preeclampsia and significantly improve outcomes for mother and baby.”

Preeclampsia is a complication characterized by high blood pressure and damage to another organ system, often the kidneys, that usually begins after 20 weeks of pregnancy in women whose blood pressure had previously been normal. Even a slight rise in blood pressure may signal preeclampsia, which, if left untreated, can lead to serious — even fatal — complications for mother and baby.

UAB Maternal-Fetal Medicine Specialists, located in the UAB Women and Infants Center, is one of the nation’s most advanced and one of only 14 centers nationwide to participate in the NIH-sponsored Maternal-Fetal Medicine Units Network, which has helped produce groundbreaking achievements in high-risk pregnancy research. Specialists — available 24 hours a day — have access to treatments that often are not available elsewhere. UAB is expected to be a leader in the PRESERVE-1 trial, which will enroll 120 women at centers around the country during the next 18 months.

atrynThe PRESERVE-1 trial will assess the efficacy, safety and pharmacokinetics of ATryn in addition to expectant management for the treatment of early onset preeclampsia. Efficacy will be assessed by comparing the difference in gestational age from the time of randomization into the trial until delivery of the baby in women given ATryn to those given placebo. Equally important, the effect of ATryn on neonatal clinical outcomes also will be assessed.

Preeclampsia occurs in approximately 5 to 8 percent of all pregnancies and typically presents after the 20th week of pregnancy. The cause is unknown, but the number of cases is growing. The incidence of the disorder has increased by approximately 25 percent since 1987.

In preeclampsia, abnormal development of blood vessels from the uterus to the placenta may decrease the flow of blood, nutrients and oxygen from mother to baby, placing the baby at risk for prematurity and abnormal fetal growth. The lining of the blood vessels also experience inflammation that extends throughout the mother’s blood vessels and internal organs. As a result, high blood pressure, stroke, seizures and liver and kidney problems can occur.

The difficultly for physicians and patients is that most often there are no symptoms initially. Preeclampsia can be discovered as part of routine monitoring, but women need to watch for possible warning signs, including headaches, visual changes, upper abdominal pain, excessive weight gain and bleeding.

“As a physician faced with the difficult challenge of managing preeclampsia early in pregnancy, I see firsthand the significant need for new medicines to safely extend pregnancy and give a baby more time to develop in utero,” Tita said. “PRESERVE-1 is an important Phase III trial to assess the potential benefits of ATryn in a clear area of unmet medical need.”

Physicians and health professionals can refer patients by calling UAB Medical Information Service via Telephone, a 24-hour service, at 205-934-6478 or 1-800-UAB-MIST.


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