September 26, 2014

Powerhouse team of cancer researchers joins UAB

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Two highly acclaimed cancer researchers, Ravi Bhatia, M.D., and Smita Bhatia, M.D., MPH, will join the University of Alabama at Birmingham in January 2015.

ravi-bhatiaRavi Bhatia, M.D. Click the photo to read more about Dr. Bhatia.Ravi Bhatia, professor in the Department of Medicine, has been appointed director of the UAB Division of Hematology and Oncology and as the deputy director of the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center. Smita Bhatia, professor in the UAB Department of Pediatrics, will hold new positions as director of the Institute for Cancer Outcomes and Survivorship in the UAB School of Medicine pending UA System Board of Trustees approval, vice chair for outcomes in the Department of Pediatrics, and associate director for cancer outcomes research at the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center. She will also join the Children’s of Alabama medical staff and be the co-director of the Center for Outcomes and Effectiveness Research and Education

“Both Ravi and Smita are exceptional researchers who bring an array of expertise to our cancer research enterprise,” said Edward Partridge, M.D., director of the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center. “With their leadership and multidisciplinary approach to cancer research and treatment, they will strengthen our ability to take critical scientific findings and move them rapidly to clinical settings, ultimately benefiting our patients.” 

The pair comes to UAB from City of Hope  in Duarte, California, where Ravi Bhatia specializes in leukemia research, specifically studying the role of stem cells as it relates to blood cell cancer progression. While at City of Hope, he was instrumental in the discovery that malignant stem cells can persist in chronic myelogenous leukemia patients who are in complete remission after having been treated with the drug Gleevec. Although Gleevec revolutionized the treatment of CML, his findings revealed an important limitation of this treatment – residual stem cells can lead to the recurrence of disease when treatment is discontinued. This finding has resulted in clinical trials to eliminate malignant stem cells in patients achieving remission to enhance cures for leukemia patients.

During his tenure at City of Hope, Ravi Bhatia was appointed director of the Division of Hematopoietic Stem Cell and Leukemia Research and co-director of the Hematological Malignancies Program in the Comprehensive Cancer Center, and he is credited with recruiting and mentoring young faculty with common interests in studying the properties of leukemia stem cells and developing treatments to target and destroy them.  He was elected to membership in the American Society for Clinical Investigation in recognition of meritorious and outstanding contribution as a physician scientist in 2006.

smitha-bhatiaSmita Bhatia, M.D., MPH. Click her photo to read more about Dr. Bhatia.While at City of Hope, Smita Bhatia made significant scientific contributions toward identifying chronic health issues among cancer survivors, including patients undergoing hematopoietic cell transplantation. She established multidisciplinary survivorship clinics, providing cancer survivors with state-of-the-art comprehensive follow-up care. Through her work, she discovered an increased risk of radiation-related breast cancer among adolescent girls exposed to chest radiation for the treatment of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. This finding resulted in a reduction in radiation doses used for managing Hodgkin’s lymphoma in girls during their teenage years and trials to develop risk-reduction strategies for girls treated with chest radiation. She has also demonstrated the critical role for adherence to oral chemotherapy in preventing relapse in children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and is now leading a national trial to enhance treatment adherence.

Among her many leadership positions, Bhatia established the Department of Population Sciences at City of Hope in 2006. An internationally renowned leader in cancer survivorship research, she serves as the associate chair for the Children’s Oncology Group, coordinating survivorship research across 200 pediatric oncology institutions. She was also elected to membership in the American Society for Clinical Investigation in recognition of meritorious and outstanding contribution as a physician scientist in 2006. She is the recipient of the Frank H. Oski Lectureship Award from the American Society of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology to honor outstanding investigation in Pediatric Hematology/Oncology. In 2012, she was also elected to the board of directors of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

The recruitment of the Bhatias underscores UAB’s broader efforts to recruit and retain the caliber of faculty necessary to rank among the nation’s elite research-intensive academic medical centers. This is a top priority in UAB’s institutional strategic planning and in AMC21, the complementary strategic plan that aims to make UAB the preferred academic medical center of the 21st century. Aggressive faculty recruitment also figures prominently in the $1 billion Campaign for UAB, the university’s largest ever philanthropic effort that is raising funds for, among other priorities, endowed chairs and professorships and state-of-the-art facilities that can attract leading, NIH-funded teams of investigators.

“Competition among AMCs nationally is more intense than ever, and it is not enough to simply keep pace and maintain; UAB must continually excel, innovate and grow,” said UAB President Ray L. Watts. “We can become the preferred academic medical center of the 21st century only if we build 21st century teams of investigators and clinicians, such as the Bhatias, who are forging the future of biomedical science and medicine. In doing so, we’ll also build the future of Birmingham and Alabama, with outstanding patient care for our state and region as well as a robust, technology-based economy.”

Together the Bhatias bring several well-funded and broad-ranged grants from the National Institutes of Health, and hope to expand their research teams.  

“My goal at UAB is to further develop the strengths of the hematology and oncology program in basic, translational and clinical science, through a combination of promoting the academic growth of existing faculty and recruitment and development of additional faculty conducting translational research,” said Ravi Bhatia. “I am also interested in promoting translational research within the Comprehensive Cancer Center, contributing to program and resource development, and longer-term strategic planning.”

The Bhatias met in medical school at the All India Institute for Medical Science in New Delhi, India. Both completed fellowships and additional training at the University of Minnesota. They have been married for almost 30 years and have two daughters, Devika, 26, who is a medical student at Florida International University in Miami, and Shweta, 20, an undergraduate at Carleton College in Minnesota.

  We are thrilled to have these exceptional scientists join us at UAB,” said Selwyn M. Vickers, M.D. “Both Ravi and Smita have made significant contributions to their respective areas of research, and they are world-class research scientists. Their strengths will help propel UAB as a leader in basic and outcomes research and will put us closer to better medical therapies.”
The couple started out working in the field of cancer together.

“While Ravi’s research is primarily lab-based and mine is primarily population-based, we now have several projects where we work together, thus helping take research from bench to bedside and vice versa,” said Smita Bhatia. 

“My primary focus at UAB will be to establish a comprehensive program for cancer outcomes and survivorship research,” she said. “The overarching goal will be to develop strategies to reduce the burden of cancer and its sequelae across all segments of the population through collaborative, interdisciplinary, interventional and educational efforts.”

According to the Bhatias, strong leadership, a strong sense of collaboration across disciplines and a strong academic mission attracted them to joining UAB.

“There are several natural fits between our work and the research strengths at UAB,” she said.

“We are thrilled to have these exceptional scientists join us at UAB,” said Selwyn M. Vickers, M.D., senior vice president for Medicine and dean of the UAB School of Medicine. “Both Ravi and Smita have made significant contributions to their respective areas of research, and they are world-class research scientists. Their strengths will help propel UAB as a leader in basic and outcomes research and will put us closer to better medical therapies.”

“Scientifically, this is an exciting time at UAB,” Vickers said. “With our focus on personalized medicine and genomics, physician-scientists like the Bhatias can take us to the next level. We will be able to examine the molecular basis of leukemia and other such diseases, and identify genes that contribute to its development. We have the opportunity to be truly transformative in terms of patient care for Alabama and the nation.”
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