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June 23, 2021

Two awarded first-ever Dr. Levi Watkins Jr. Breakthrough Awards for Research that Transform Health

Written by

Dutton squareGareth Dutton, Ph.D.Contributing author: Carolyn Walsh, M.A., Department of Medicine

In 2020, a new research award was funded at UAB in honor of Levi Watkins Jr., M.D.—well-known nationally for his innovations in cardiovascular science, being the first to implant a novel cardiac defibrillator, and his spiritual approach to practicing medicine.

The Dr. Levi Watkins Jr. Breakthrough Awards for Research that Transform Health offers School of Medicine scientists funding for projects aimed to improve prevention, diagnosis, or management of disease across local, national, and global populations.

Two investigators were selected as inaugural winners of the award for their proposals and securing substantial extramural funding of $5 million or more. The Watkins Breakthrough Award will support their proposed teams and projects.

Gareth Dutton, Ph.D., professor in the Division of Preventive Medicine, and Surya Bhatt, M.D., associate professor in the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care Medicine, are the winners of this year’s award. Both projects will pioneer new ways to serve patient populations across Alabama—especially in underserved areas with low-income and higher risks of disease. Each project provides easier access to patient care for vulnerable populations: one through home visiting programs and the other through telehealth.

Improving cardiovascular disease through home visits

Dutton’s funded project, “Improving the Cardiovascular Health of High-Risk Families through an Innovative Home Visitation Intervention” seeks to help make home visiting programs in cardiovascular health more operative and available over time. Dutton explains that while lifestyle interventions have already been adapted for delivery through home visiting programs, there is still much to learn to make these programs more accessible, more effective, and more sustainable for families, as well as the community organizations delivering them.

“This award will allow us to gather necessary information from various stakeholder groups, including home visiting program administrators and staff, as well as families receiving home visiting services, in order to make these health promotion programs better and to gain broader reach,” Dutton says.

Dutton comments that the award will allow his team to develop and deliver evidence-based strategies to promote cardiovascular health among vulnerable families in Alabama by leveraging existing infrastructure for eventual dissemination. “By doing this, we hope to take our research discoveries and translate and disseminate them to communities in our state who are at greatest risk for cardiovascular disease.” The ultimate goal of the project is to improve outcomes and reduce risk of cardiovascular diseases for Alabama families.

When asked what the project means for UAB on a broad scope, Dutton explains that, though UAB already has significant research and clinical expertise on cardiovascular diseases, health disparities, maternal health, pediatrics, and lifestyle interventions for cardiovascular health promotion, this project will bring all of these areas together collaboratively, and pair them with home visiting programs—federally-funded services that help vulnerable families throughout the state.

Surya Bhatt HeadshotSurya Bhatt, M.D.Tackling COPD through telehealth

Bhatt’s funded project, “Video Telehealth Pulmonary Rehabilitation to Reduce Hospital Readmission in Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (Tele-COPD)” is a clinical trial focused on telehealth and tele-rehabilitation for pulmonary disease.

“The upcoming multicenter randomized controlled trial (Tele-COPD) is a massive undertaking and the Dr. Levi Watkins Jr. Breakthrough Award will be immensely helpful in setting up the infrastructure needed to get this project up and running,” Bhatt says. “These funds will also help establish infrastructure for other exercise interventions that will potentially help patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) breathe better.”

The Tele-COPD study will require a command center where the tele-rehabilitation exercise intervention will be administered to patients enrolled from ten sites across the country. “With these funds, we will establish new infrastructure and improve existing facilities for the successful conduct of this trial,” Bhatt explains.

Bhatt’s groundbreaking work is exciting for UAB because it gives the enterprise an opportunity to establish research infrastructure for exercise interventions and tele-interventions in the pulmonary space. “UAB is already at the forefront of translational and clinical research,” Bhatt says. “This tele-rehabilitation approach is applicable to other chronic respiratory and non-respiratory diseases as well, and will hopefully facilitate similar trials for other chronic diseases.”

The spirit of Levi Watkins, Jr.

In addition to his legendary breakthroughs in cardiovascular health, Watkins was a civil rights forerunner and champion for racial equity—in both health care and community. Plus, Watkins mentored a generation of physicians and physician-scientists, demonstrating how to synergize their work in health care with community compassion. Watkins mentored Selwyn M. Vickers, M.D., FACS, dean of the School of Medicine, during his medical school career and training years at Johns Hopkins University. “He was a mentor to me and an important role model. He illustrated to me how to be both a surgeon and an advocate for health equity,” Vickers says.

Seth Landefeld, M.D., MACP, chair of the Department of Medicine and Spencer Chair in Medical Science Leadership, helped lead efforts to establish the Watkins Breakthrough Awards. Inspired by the work and spirit of Watkins, Landefeld says, "The Watkins Breakthrough Awards are a novel approach to encouraging and supporting research that will advance health directly.”

“We see these Awards as Nobels-of-the-Future, as we aspire for them to identify and support investigators who have a great idea that can advance health and that can win very large extramural grant support,” Landefeld remarks. “The awards are named for Levi Watkins Jr., M.D., because Dr. Watkins took on daunting challenges with courage and grace, as we hope Watkins Breakthrough Awardees will."

On Dr. Watkins’ influence over Bhatt’s work, he says, “Despite the significant hurdles and discriminations he faced, Dr. Watkins was known for his medical innovations as well for championing social justice. I hope to emulate some of his work by developing interventions, such as this tele-rehabilitation intervention, that will have a significant impact on our patients' lives, especially those with low access to resources.”