UABMedS17 CoverWith the appointment of Matt Might, Ph.D., as the inaugural director of the Hugh Kaul Personalized Medicine Institute at UAB, the School of Medicine is entering a new era of growth and innovation in precision medicine. This issue explores Dr. Might’s vision and fascinating backstory, as well as the many ways UAB is using precision medicine and genomic science to confront some of our greatest health challenges. You’ll also find stories about UAB’s new Integrative Medicine Clinic; changes in anatomy training in medical education; the latest class of Alabama Schweitzer Fellows; and our new Medical Alumni Association President, Timothy Hecker, M.D., among other articles.

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Volume 43, Number 1

matt might 275x275After a national search, Matthew Might was named the inaugural director of UAB’s Hugh Kaul Personalized Medicine Institute. When Matthew Might, Ph.D., looks at the biology of the human body, he doesn’t see cells or DNA. He sees a computer and individual programs. He sees a deep trove of data filed away in a personal operating system that is unique to each individual—data that can be mined to unlock potential treatments for a wide array of diseases, common and rare.

Might’s perception stems from his passion for computers. He received a master’s degree and Ph.D. in computer science from Georgia Tech, and spent nine years as a professor at the University of Utah’s School of Computing. But a turn of events in his personal life led Might to realize that his way of thinking can be beneficial in the world of medicine, particularly in the growing field of precision medicine.

Might is working on ways to use computational technologies such as genomic sequencing to discover the best way to treat a specific person’s specific disease. It is medicine at its most precise: customized treatment designed expressly for each individual.

eddy yang 275x275Eddy Yang is the UAB leader for the Strata Oncology Trial, which provides no-cost tumor sequencing and clinical trial matching for advanced cancer patients. Under the microscope, samples from two different patients’ pancreatic tumors may look similar—clumps of abnormally shaped cancer cells and empty spaces where healthy cells have died. But months after a pathologist has peered at these cells and diagnosed cancer, one patient’s tumor may have shrunk in response to treatment, while the other’s continues to grow after undergoing the same treatment. What accounts for the difference? Most likely, each tumor is fueled by different genetic mutations or tweaks to the DNA inside each cell.

For the past few years, UAB has offered a select subset of advanced cancer patients the option to gene sequence their tumor, with the hope that it will give clinicians insight into how to treat it. Now, the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center is one of the first two institutions to partner with Michigan-based Strata Oncology on a trial that makes this service accessible to even more patients. As part of the Strata Oncology Trial, Strata will provide no-cost tumor sequencing to cancer patients at UAB who have tumors that can’t be removed surgically or have spread to another part of the body. It is also available to all glioblastoma and pancreatic cancer patients, although any tumor type is eligible, and the trial includes clinical trial matching.

feat pharmacogenomics 275x275Richard Shelton and Nita Limdi are studying the effectiveness of genetic testing to improve prescribing mediciations for depression.Whether prescribing a medication to lower blood pressure, ease pain, or treat anxiety, a doctor relies on a few key pieces of patient information to determine the proper medication and dosage. A patient’s symptoms, medical history, age, and weight will likely influence the doctor’s decision. In the near future, though, there may be another critical element to determining a person’s correct prescription: his or her genetic profile.

Clinicians have long known that people respond to drugs in different ways. Two patients with the same disease who present identical symptoms may have opposing responses to the same treatment. One patient may have more serious side effects, or the drug may not work in one patient despite being effective in the other.

disease detectives 275x275A group of UAB experts in genetics, infectious diseases, and other specialties are working to solve medical mysteries for patients from across the Southeast. It would be extremely unlikely that this sort of condition would be recognized in a setting outside a program such as ours,” says Bruce Korf, M.D., Ph.D., the Wayne H. and Sara Crews Finley Chair in Medical Genetics in the Department of Genetics and director of UAB’s Undiagnosed Diseases Program (UDP). He is referring to the case of a child born with profound developmental issues. The child is blind and deaf, suffers from multiple seizures, and has never smiled or sat up.

The results of whole genome sequencing revealed that the child has two gene mutations, one associated with seizures and developmental abnormalities and the other with impaired cognitive development. The genetic variants were categorized as de novo, or new mutations, meaning they occurred spontaneously. While there is no known cure for the child’s condition, the good news for the parents is the risk that such mutations would occur again if they have another child is very small. In addition, the risk to the family’s other children of one day having a child with these mutations and their associated conditions is no greater than in the general population.

AGHI conference 275x275Selwyn Vickers, dean of the School of Medicine, speaks to members of the media at a press conference in March announcing the Alabama Genomic Health Initiative. Imagine editing a book with about 6 billion characters subdivided into words, paragraphs, and chapters, and poring over each letter and space to ensure every character is in its proper place and there are no periods where a comma should sit. That book would be nearly 625 times longer than the current Guinness World Record holder for longest book, A la recherche du temps perdu by French author Marcel Proust, which comes in at a shade over 9.6 million characters across 13 volumes.

That is what it takes to sequence and analyze a person’s entire genomic sequence, which is why Bruce Korf, M.D., Ph.D., the chair of the UAB Department of Genetics and the Wayne H. and Sara Crews Finley Chair of Medical Genetics, uses the analogy when describing the genomic analysis and interpretation that will become available, free of charge, to a group of Alabama residents thanks to the Alabama Genomic Health Initiative (AGHI).

integrative med 275x275Carolina Salvador spearheaded the effort to open the new UAB Integrative Medicine Clinic. Breast cancer specialist Carolina Salvador, M.D., who joined the Division of Hematology and Oncology in 2011, loves her work but has long felt frustrated that the current health care system does not afford physicians with the time or training they need to address patients’ life concerns during and after treatment.

“Experiencing through my patients what a cancer diagnosis brings—how it changes your body, your mind, everything in your life—and treating the cancer without attending to the rest of the things that are happening to the person feels a bit like cheating to me,” she says.

Salvador’s dedication to treating the whole patient’s needs led her to pursue training in integrative medicine, and helped convince UAB to create an Integrative Medicine Clinic, which opened in January in The Kirklin Clinic with Salvador as director. She trained for two years at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, which was founded in 1994 by the renowned integrative physician Andrew Weil, M.D. Salvador began incorporating some of the center’s methods in her own oncology practice this past year.

anatomy 275x275William Brooks is the director of the Gross Anatomy Lab and Surgical Anatomy Lab.Medical students have traditionally taken an in-depth anatomy course during their first semester of medical school. The experience of dissecting a cadaver and memorizing long lists of anatomic structures has been a rite of passage into the field of medicine for generations.

But in recent years, as medicine—and medical education—has become more team-based and interdisciplinary, medical schools across the country are bringing anatomy training out of its silo and integrating it with other areas of study. At the same time, new technologies offer innovative ways to teach anatomy and encourage teamwork among students. With grant funding to update lab space and a new approach to the curriculum, UAB’s anatomy program is making some big changes.

InforgraphicThumbnail2Match Day, the day graduating medical students learn where they will conduct their residencies, is the culmination of a student’s medical school journey and the first step into specialty training. It is a day filled with joy, relief, excitement, laughter, friends, and family. Here are a few facts and figures about the 2017 Match Day results.

grabowski 275x275Christina Grabowski is the School of Medicine's new associate dean for admissions and enrollment management. MCAT scores, grade point averages, and research experiences are among the criteria medical school admissions committees traditionally consider when deciding which applicants to admit. Today, medical schools are also turning to data collection and analysis to help identify students who are likely to become, for example, leaders in clinical research or primary care. They then use that data to adapt their admissions policies and curricula.

These are the kinds of issues Christina Grabowski, Ph.D., the School of Medicine’s new associate dean for admissions and enrollment management, thinks about every day. “The ability to take the admissions process to the next level at a medical school with a national reputation and the opportunity to work with all the talented people here at UAB is exciting to me,” she says.

Schweitzer 275x275Nobel Peace Prize laureate and medical missionary Albert Schweitzer inspired the founding of the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship. In 2015, as part of an effort to expand service learning opportunities for medical students, the School of Medicine partnered with the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship (ASF) to open the 13th U.S.-based chapter of the prestigious service program. The fellowship is open to applicants from an array of health-focused graduate programs, including medicine, nursing, dentistry, and public health. The ASF named the second class of Alabama fellows in April, and it includes four UAB medical students.

The ASF was founded in the U.S. in 1940 to provide aid to the hospital that Nobel Peace Prize laureate and medical missionary Albert Schweitzer founded in Gabon, Africa. In 1979, the fellowship started sending medical students to work at the hospital. Today, it is dedicated to improving the health of vulnerable populations both at home and abroad.

MSCenter2 275x275Multiple sclerosis research at UAB has received a significant boost thanks to a $1.3 million anonymous gift. While most people focus on establishing careers and starting families in their 20s and 30s, this is also the age range when about 80 percent of people with multiple sclerosis (MS) are diagnosed with the disease. MS affects the central nervous system and causes the brain to send the wrong signals throughout the body—setting off a chain reaction in which, among other symptoms, your balance becomes unsteady, your vision blurs, and your muscles spasm.

Thousands of people in the Southeast have received this diagnosis, but there is a refuge for them to seek care: the UAB Multiple Sclerosis Center (MSC). The center serves as a hub for all MS-related activities and is a comprehensive resource for patients, UAB physicians and scientists, and community physicians. The MSC’s goal is to advance research and clinical care for neuroimmunological disorders, which includes training the next generation of MS physicians and scientists as well as providing access to the unsurpassed care available to patients through UAB’s world-class health system.

wilsons 275x275Lloyd and Sherry Wilson with their daughter Jennifer Wilson Aday. In gratitude for the care Jennifer received from the UAB Department of Neurosurgery, the Wilsons made a gift to fund resident research through the Clinical Research Scholars program. When Birmingham natives Lloyd and Sherry Wilson experienced every parent’s worst nightmare—their child undergoing a serious, life-threatening medical emergency—they had no idea they would find their family’s saving grace right here at home.

“We wouldn’t have been aware of the depth of UAB’s Department of Neurosurgery had it not been for personal events,” says Lloyd Wilson, president of asset management company Lloyd R. Wilson & Associates. “Drs. Mark Hadley and Jim Markert provided life-saving care to our daughter Jennifer during an incredibly difficult situation. We are forever indebted to them and to the talents of the whole department, and we wanted to give back.”

Rasberry 275x275Joan Rasberry purchased this colorful painting at the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center's ArtBlink Gala and donated it back to the Cancer Center. She was also inspired to make a gift to support leukemia research at UAB because of the excellent care she received at UAB.There’s an adage that art speaks to you. For Joan Rasberry that couldn’t have been truer when she saw a painting of a bouquet of flowers at the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center’s annual ArtBlink Gala in 2016. The flowers were bathed in a rainbow of colors—lavender, peach, cotton white, forest green, bright yellow—to symbolize the different types of cancers millions of people face. Rasberry is one of those people.

Diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, Rasberry didn’t know where to turn for treatment. However, she was thankful when her doctor referred her to Harry Erba, M.D., Ph.D. “My first experience with UAB happened when I was getting treated by Dr. Erba, and he is fantastic,” says Rasberry. “He is everything you want in a physician, and I’m forever grateful to him and the other amazing people at UAB for giving me years of my life back.”

Rasberry wanted to show her gratitude by pledging a gift in honor of Erba. The pledge will support the Alabama Leukemia Research Fund for Acute Myeloid Leukemia, a research initiative led by Erba and Chris Klug, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Microbiology. Not only does this research hit close to home for Rasberry, but she also wants to help those who are suffering from or will suffer from cancer in their lives.

IinI AlumniCampaign30M 275x275School of Medicine leadership and donors to its Alumni Campaign gathered at the 2017 Medical Alumni Weekend to celebrate achieving a milestone of $30 million in gifts.What does it take to raise $30 million dollars in fewer years than it takes to complete medical school and residency training? An extraordinary group of School of Medicine alumni devoted to giving back helped accomplish this milestone for UAB. From funding medical student scholarships to advancing research through philanthropy, School of Medicine alumni have put their money where their hearts are by giving to the people and programs across UAB that mean the most to them. And they’re only getting started.

Michael Vaughn, M.D., a 1981 School of Medicine alumnus, gave one of the recent gifts that helped the School of Medicine reach the $30 million milestone. He made a gift to the Crittenden-Larson Endowed Medical Scholarship to help honor his late colleague Richard Crittenden, M.D.

“Supporting the School of Medicine and this scholarship is meaningful to me, because it honors Richard’s hard work and dedication,” says Vaughn. “I’m happy to give this gift in his honor.”

vance 275x275Katisha Vance is the Jefferson County Medical Society president.For Katisha Vance, M.D., August 1986 changed the course of her life, both personally and professionally. She said goodbye to her maternal grandmother, Mattie Stinson, who died at age 64 from metastatic colorectal cancer. That was also when the first seeds were planted for her future career in medicine.

“I was always close with my Grandma Mattie, who was a mother of 12 and worked her entire life,” says Vance, a physician at Baptist Princeton Medical Center’s Alabama Oncology. “Back then, treatment options were limited for patients with stage IV disease. Fortunately, today we have an ever-increasing number of therapies to help patients in the fight of their lives. I’m motivated to come to work every day to help someone else’s Mattie.”

Vance says she solidified her decision to become a physician during her senior year as an undergraduate at the University of Alabama. “I’d initially planned to get a Ph.D. in chemistry, run a lab, and teach,” says Vance, a 2000 graduate of the School of Medicine.

hecker 275x275Timothy Hecker is one of the youngest Medical Alumni Association presidents in the organization's history.Timothy Hecker, M.D., is accustomed to being the youngest at things. As the youngest of seven children, he was constantly trying to keep up with his older siblings, a determination that would serve him well in his academic pursuits. “It wasn’t always easy, but it spurred me to achieve more,” explains Hecker, a Mobile native and 2004 graduate of the School of Medicine. This year, Hecker, 40, became one of the youngest presidents of the University of Alabama Medical Alumni Association (MAA) in recent memory.

Initially an engineering major at Catholic University in Washington D.C., Hecker ultimately realized he needed a different career. “Deciding to become a doctor was a good mix for me in terms of the personal interaction, the intellectual stimulation, building relationships, and wanting to help others,” he says. “Plus, I’ve always had an interest in brain science.”

1 UABArchives4 webPictures highlight UAB's history in genetics.The first Medical Genetics Program in the Southeast, and one of the first in the U.S., was established at UAB in 1962. Since then, UAB has remained at the forefront of genetics as the field has advanced. This selection of photos from the UAB Archives illustrates the development of medical genetics at the School of Medicine and showcases some of the seminal figures from our school’s history.