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Written by Christina Crowe

The University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Pathology has established its new Division of Women’s Health.

The UA Board of Trustees approved the division in February 2022. Interim Division Director Thomas Winokur, M.D., will lead the division as an ongoing recruiting effort for a permanent director takes place. Winokur says the creation of the division stands to help emphasize our departmental and institutional commitment to women’s health.

 Womens Health BannerThe Division of Women's Health is directed by Thomas Winokur, M.D. Faculty include (left to right, bottom row): Xiao Huang, M.D., Ph.D., and Kavita Varma, M.D., DNB, assistant professors; (top row, l to r): Valeria Dal Zotto, M.D., assistant professor; Andrea Kahn, M.D., Professor and Section Head, GYN Pathology; Virginia Duncan, M.D., Assistant Professor, Section Head, Perinatal Pathology

“The establishment of this division serves to unify the subspecialties we have focused on in women’s health in pathology as a field--obstetrics/gynecology, breast, perinatal—and bring them under one umbrella,” Winokur says.

Women’s health makes up one of the busiest pathology clinical services at UAB Medicine. The primary goals for the division are to aid in recruiting talented individuals to UAB to focus on women’s health; to enhance diagnostic and molecular testing in areas impacting women’s health; and to build a research portfolio in these areas.

“Both our primary and secondary faculty will have strong relationships with anyone on campus working on women’s health issues,” said George Netto, M.D., Robert and Ruth Anderson Endowed Chair. “This will enhance our connectivity to others in the institution working toward the goal of improving healthcare diagnostics and treatment for all women seeking care at UAB.”

The division has five faculty primary appointees: Andrea Kahn, M.D., Professor and Section Head, GYN Pathology; Virginia Duncan, M.D., Assistant Professor, Section Head, Perinatal Pathology; Xiao Huang, M.D., Ph.D., Assistant Professor, and Valeria Dal Zotto, M.D., and Kavita Varma, M.D., DNB, assistant professors recruited to the division this spring.

“The Department of Pathology’s innovation in establishing the Division of Women’s Health, puts UAB Heersink School of Medicine on the map nationally, joining institutions across the country with similar divisions,” Selwyn Vickers, M.D., dean of the UAB Marnix E. Heersink School of Medicine, CEO of the UAB Health System and CEO of the UAB/Ascension St. Vincent’s Alliance. “Recent efforts to focus on diseases and diagnoses affecting women will have a great impact in our state and region. Having this division at UAB will also enhance recruitment of the brightest scientists and physicians in disciplines unique to women.”

The department announced the division on the 21st anniversary of the death of its pioneering gynecologic pathologist, Hazel Gore, M.D. UAB Pathology holds an endowment named for Gore, a native of Australia whose parents were both well-known pathologists. She completed a fellowship in New York before coming to Birmingham and holding joint appointments with the UAB Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the Department of Pathology. Gore spent the remainder of her career at UAB where she trained many students, even after her retirement. She passed away at the age of 78 on July 14, 2001, and the endowment in her name was established in 2007. The Hazel Gore, M.D., Endowed Program Support Fund for the Department of Pathology is being used to recruit the division’s director. 

Warner Huh, M.D., chair of the UAB Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, says he is excited at the prospect of partnering with the new division, building on the relationship his department already has with UAB Pathology.

“We have a very busy division with the only cervical SPORE in the state (a grant-funded mechanism to study HPV vaccines to reduce cervical cancer incidents), and a significant contract with the National Cancer Institute on endometrial cancer, and we need this strong pathology partner to be successful in these areas,” Huh said. “In Alabama we see more diverse pathology in these areas than in most parts of the country. We look forward to enhanced diagnostic and molecular testing and screening for ovarian, endometrial and breast cancers.”

Helen Kontiras, M.D., Kirby I. Bland, M.D., endowed professor in Surgery and Division Director, Breast and Endocrine Surgery, Medical Director, UAB Multidisciplinary Breast Clinic, agrees.

“The establishment of this division will allow us to recruit and grow everything related to caring for women,” she says. “It has tremendous potential to bring under one umbrella many of the diseases that impact women in our area. The opportunities for research in these areas are huge, both from the standpoint of diagnosis, but also to identify more precision treatments for women.” 

“At UAB we are just trying to treat patients efficiently, with compassion and cutting-edge therapy,” Kontiras says. “Having a team- and disease-based approach is the best way to do it.”

Barry Sleckman, M.D., Ph.D., director of the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB, says this division’s establishment speaks to the mission to unite and build on existing strengths within our institution. 

“Being part of the multidisciplinary team looking at the diagnoses and making the treatment plans is a huge benefit of this division dedicated to women’s health,” Sleckman said. “If you can recruit talented faculty, you’re going to improve patient care.”

This is the second division established during Netto’s tenure as chair of the department, and it will partner directly with the first, the Division of Genomic Diagnostics and Bioinformatics, established in 2017.

“As we continue progress toward the establishment of a freestanding Genomic Diagnostics Lab at UAB, this new division will dovetail with the expertise of our existing molecular diagnostics team, their testing and research, and focus on improved care for the women of our state and region,” Netto says.