As the U.S. population ages, the number of people coping with a memory disorder or caring for a loved one with a memory disorder is rising. This issue’s cover story highlights our efforts to address one of the greatest challenges facing American families and the U.S. health care system, as our clinicians and researchers work to find innovative ways to help those in need and develop prevention strategies to stem the tide of memory disorders diagnoses in the future. You’ll also learn about our participation in a National Science Foundation-sponsored program that helps scientists and engineers take their research from the laboratory to the marketplace; be introduced to notable figures from the school’s history for whom our Learning Communities are now named; and meet alumni who are making a difference helping veterans here at home and treating patients on a hospital ship off the coast of Africa.

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Volume 43, Number 2

The number of people coping with a memory disorder or caring for a loved one with a memory disorder is rising.Shortly after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2011, singer Glen Campbell recorded a song called “Ghost on the Canvas.” The song begins with the line, “I know a place between life and death for you and me.”

An existence in limbo is a daily reality for many of the 5.5 million people in the U.S. currently living with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia. It also often accurately describes the agonizing circumstances facing the more than 15 million Americans who provide care for family members and loved ones suffering from memory disorders.

Two UAB neurobiologists are learning how synapses change when new neurons are formed.One goal in neurobiology is to understand how the flow of electrical signals through brain circuits gives rise to perception, action, thought, learning, and memories. Linda Overstreet-Wadiche, Ph.D., and Jacques Wadiche, Ph.D., associate professors in the UAB Department of Neurobiology and a wife-and-husband team, have published their latest contribution in this effort, focused on a part of the brain that helps form memories: the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus.

The dentate gyrus is one of only two areas in the brain where new neurons are formed continuously in adults through a process called neurogenesis. When a new granule cell neuron is formed in the dentate gyrus, it must get “wired in” by forming synapses, or connections, in order to contribute to circuit function. Dentate granule cells are part of a circuit that receive electrical signals from the entorhinal cortex, a cortical brain region that processes sensory and spatial input from other areas of the brain. By combining this sensory and spatial information, the dentate gyrus can generate a unique memory of an experience.

Michael Birrer, an expert in gynecologic cancers, is the new leader of the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center.Michael Birrer, M.D., Ph.D., did not originally consider entering the field of gynecologic oncology. It was instead an obligatory appointment to serve on a board that changed the trajectory of his career. “I initially started out in 1988 as an investigator in lung cancer at the National Cancer Institute’s Center for Cancer Research,” explains Birrer. “Since I was new faculty, I had to sit on the gynecologic oncology tumor board. It was a set of tumors I had little experience with at the time, but I enjoyed learning about everything involving these tumors. It was absolutely fascinating.”

That fascination has been a constant theme throughout his almost 30-year career and has led him to his new position as director of the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center. “What I find exciting about the role is it allows me to help a greater number of patients suffering from cancer,” says Birrer, a trailblazer in the early detection and treatment of gynecologic cancers.

UAB’s Spinal Cord Injury Model System is one of only 14 officially recognized systems in the country and the longest continually funded SCI model system in existence.Prior to her residency in physical medicine and rehabilitation at UAB, Amie Brown (Jackson) McLain, M.D., witnessed her father suffer a spinal cord injury and become paralyzed after cancer spread into his bones. “It was very traumatic,” McLain says. “At that time I was not very knowledgeable at all about his condition, or what could or should be done. He lived several years with his paralyses. Having seen it at a certain age in my life made a profound impression on me.”

Today McLain is chair of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, holder of the Robert B. Kyle Professorship and Chair in Rehabilitation Medicine, and director of the UAB Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) Model System. UAB’s SCI Model System is one of only 14 officially recognized systems in the country and the longest continually funded SCI model system in existence. UAB is also home to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center (NSCISC), directed by Yuying Chen, M.D., Ph.D., which supports and directs the collection, management, and analysis of the world’s largest spinal cord injury research database. Both programs are funded every five years by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR). 

As a third-year internal medicine resident, Anezi Uzendu survived a severe cardiac arrest, thanks in part to his residency family.On November 28, 2016, Anezi Uzendu, M.D., a third-year resident in the Tinsley Harrison Internal Medicine Residency Program, was playing basketball at a local gym when he went into cardiac arrest and passed out from a loss of blood flow to the brain. A local chiropractor who happened to be in the gym came to Uzendu’s aid and performed CPR until paramedics arrived. Uzendu was shocked more than 10 times with a defibrillator, and he didn’t regain consciousness until a week later.

“People don’t survive what I survived,” Uzendu says. “I didn’t know the people at the gym, but they did a great job of stabilizing me until I could get to the hospital. I know I was intubated and placed under hypothermia protocol once I was admitted.”

Read about the key figures who helped shape the UAB School of Medicine. The School of Medicine’s Learning Communities are small groups aimed at fostering interpersonal relationships among students from all four classes and between students and faculty mentors. They also offer ideal venues for group discussions on topics ranging from mindfulness and resilience to medical ethics to managing finances. This year, students were given the opportunity to rename six of the 11 Learning Communities after prominent leaders from the school’s past and present. Here you can learn more about the fascinating figures who inspired our Learning Communities.

Participants in UAB’s first I-Corps training cohort for scientists and engineers learn strategies for bringing their innovations to the marketplace.With an estimated failure rate for business startups hovering anywhere from 50 to 90 percent, success requires plenty of inspiration, perspiration, and preparation. The latter is what UAB is hoping to bolster through a new relationship with Innovation Corps (I-Corps), a National Science Foundation (NSF)-sponsored program designed to help scientists and engineers take their research from the laboratory to the marketplace.

“We used to say, ‘Okay, you’ve got a great idea. Now spend tons of money, build a prototype, create a business plan, and take it to market,’” says Molly Wasko, Ph.D., professor and associate dean for research, innovation, and faculty success at the UAB Collat School of Business who oversaw the I-Corps implementation at UAB. “That system has failed.”

Along with UAB’s existing programs, a new undergraduate degree and a new postdoctoral research fellowship complete the training pipeline in genomic science.As precision medicine and genomics play an increasingly vital role in biomedical research and medicine, UAB has developed new programs to train the next generation of experts in the field. Along with UAB’s existing Genetics, Genomics, and Bioinformatics Graduate Theme, a new undergraduate degree and a new postdoctoral research fellowship complete the training pipeline, from undergraduate to graduate to postdoctoral training, in genetic and genomic science.

“Genomics is a relatively new and rapidly evolving area of medical research and practice,” says Bruce Korf, M.D., Ph.D., the Wayne H. and Sara Crews Finley Chair in Medical Genetics, chair of the Department of Genetics, and chief genomics officer for UAB Medicine. “UAB is qualified to be a leader in this area because our broad and deep clinical expertise, the access to genomic technologies and expertise at HudsonAlpha, and the high prevalence in our region of diseases such as diabetes and cancer that lend themselves to genomic approaches to develop better management strategies.”

By 2020, medical knowledge is projected to double every 73 days, making one of the chief challenges of the “genomic era” picking out relevant information from a sea of data. This has helped bring informatics to the forefront in medicine.Thanks to the sequencing of the human genome and the flood of research and discovery that followed, the rate of medical knowledge has doubled every three years since about 2010. And the pace is quickening—by 2020, medical knowledge is projected to double every 73 days, making one of the chief challenges of the “genomic era” picking out relevant information from a sea of data. These developments have helped bring informatics, once a niche field, to the forefront in medicine.

UAB established the Informatics Institute in 2014 and recruited James Cimino, M.D., former chief of the Laboratory for Informatics Development at the National Institutes of Health, to be its inaugural director. Last spring, Jake Chen, Ph.D., joined the institute as associate director and chief bioinformatics officer. Chen previously was founding director of the Indiana Center for Systems Biology and Personalized Medicine at Indiana University.

Brian Barki is featured on the National Geographic Channel series "The Surgery Ship," about the workings of largest civilian hospital ship in the world. Brian Barki, M.D., who completed his residency with the UAB Department of Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine in 2010, is featured on the National Geographic Channel series “The Surgery Ship.” It details the dramatic stories that take place aboard the ship Africa Mercy, the largest civilian hospital ship in the world. Operated by international charity Mercy Ships, Africa Mercy docks in the world’s poorest areas to provide life-saving care for patients in need. Barki shared his experiences with UAB Medicine.

Nearly 20 years after graduating from the School of Medicine, Kukoyi is back in Birmingham as the new chief of staff for the Birmingham VA Medical Center. When Oladipo Kukoyi, M.D., M.S., traveled to Birmingham in 1995 to attend the School of Medicine, he continued the education that nearly eluded him at the University of Lagos College of Medicine in his native Nigeria.

In his first year of medical school at the University of Lagos, the professors crammed a year of knowledge and classwork into three months because of the political uncertainty in the country at that time. “I wondered how I would be a doctor since my education kept getting interrupted,” recalls Kukoyi.

Sarah Silverstein (second from right) was an inspiration behind Medical Properties Trust’s gift to the UAB Comprehensive Diabetes Center.Four Birmingham businessmen didn’t bond over a love of shared hobbies. Instead, they realized their common interest is helping eradicate a disease that affects more than 29 million Americans: diabetes. And for these men, talk wasn’t where it ended. A recent $2.5 million gift from Medical Properties Trust (MPT) to the UAB Comprehensive Diabetes Center (UCDC) that UAB School of Medicine has agreed to match is where it is beginning.

MPT’s co-founders Edward Aldag Jr. and Emmett McLean didn’t need convincing from philanthropists David Silverstein and Benny LaRussa Jr. to provide the company gift to the center.

“It was an easy inspiration,” says Aldag, CEO and president of the second-largest owner of hospital beds in the U.S. with a reach that extends to five countries. “We are in the health care business, and diabetes is one of the worst and most prevalent diseases in this country. We heard what Dr. [Anath] Shalev’s team had going on, and it was an easy decision to give this gift.”

In memory of Dr. Alston Callahan and his wife, Eivor, the International Retinal Research Foundation has committed a gift to establish an endowed chair in ophthalmology.In his 80s, Alston Callahan, M.D., went on an epic sightseeing quest. He walked across Manhattan Island. He swam the Yazoo Canal. He explored Timbuktu. For his 83rd birthday, he visited the North Pole. The following year, he traveled to the South Pole.

During his long career, Callahan was dedicated to another kind of quest. He performed reconstructive eye surgery during World War II. He pioneered ophthalmologic plastic surgery and later served as the first chair of the UAB Department of Ophthalmology. In 1963, he founded the Eye Foundation Hospital, the first facility in Alabama dedicated to the care and treatment of the eye.

Former anesthesiology chair David Chestnut is honoring his parents, Fred and Bessie Mae Chestnut (pictured), by establishing a medical student scholarship in their names.The story of Fred and Bessie Mae Chestnut is a classic tale of America’s Greatest Generation. Born in 1918 in Orrville, Alabama, as the son of a sawmill worker, Fred Chestnut grew up wherever the work took his father during the Great Depression. After graduating from high school in 1938, he began building public projects around Alabama with the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal program for unemployed, unmarried men.

When World War II broke out, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, serving as a wireless radio operator in India and China for three years. When he returned home, he attended Howard College (now Samford University) on the GI Bill.

At Howard, Fred met Bessie Mae McElroy of Cuba, Alabama, who shared his love of learning and deep faith. She completed a year at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. The couple married in 1951 after Fred completed training at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary with the goal of returning to China as a missionary.

Pictures highlight the UAB Department of Neurology's history. The history of the division (now Department) of Neurology was marked by outstanding leadership, talented faculty, and remarkable growth. Here, we honor a few notable figures from the department’s first half-century.

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