UPMC Physician Resources

Pitt Public Health Expert Receives Career Achievement Award from Society for Medical Decision Making

PITTSBURGH, Oct. 22, 2014 – A University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health physician and health policy expert who devises mathematical models to assess the impact of medical decisions will receive one of the highest accolades offered by the professional society he joined more than 30 years ago as a medical student.

Mark Roberts, M.D., M.P.P., professor and chair, Department of Health Policy and Management, Pitt Public Health, received the Career Achievement Award of the Society for Medical Decision Making (SMDM) on Tuesday during its 36th Annual North American Meeting in Miami.

The SMDM’s members include scientists from a variety of disciplines including decision science, psychology, health economics, operations research, biostatistics, clinical epidemiology and informatics. The award recognizes distinguished senior investigators who have made significant contributions to the field of medical decision making.

“I am very honored and humbled by this recognition,” Dr. Roberts said. “This professional society built me into the researcher and academician I have become, and I am delighted and amazed to join a group of Career Achievement Award recipients that includes many of my teachers and mentors.”

“Dr. Roberts is an ‘evangelist’ for introducing sophisticated modeling techniques from the field of industrial engineering and operations research to the field of medical decision making. He has a gift for translating the key aspects of a clinical problem to an industrial engineer and being able to explain the subtleties of complex modeling to clinicians,” said Myriam Hunink, M.D., Ph.D., chair of the SMDM Awards Committee. “He has made major contributions in the area of end-stage liver disease, the national liver allocation system and the optimal timing of living-donor liver transplantation.”

Dr. Roberts has been an active member of the SMDM since 1984, served as its president from 2008 to 2009 and has held other leadership roles with the organization. He joined the faculty of Pitt School of Medicine in 1993 and has held the chair of Pitt Public Health’s Department of Health Policy and Management since 2010. He studied economics as an undergraduate at Harvard College and completed a master’s degree in public policy and health policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government while attending medical school at Tufts University. His unconventional background allowed him to bring quantitative methods and modeling techniques to the study of medical decision making.

“My late father used to joke that I went into decision sciences because I can’t make them,” Dr. Roberts said with a laugh. “That inability to stick with one field has proved to be a very good thing, though, because it gave me a broader perspective for my research.”

His talk at the award ceremony focused on the importance of “out-of-the-box” thinking and the value of multidisciplinary approaches.

“I won a prize for the best postgraduate student paper presented at the 1989 SMDM meeting and was very proud to think that my colleagues and I had found a brand new technique that could build better disease models,” Dr. Roberts said. “Then someone told me that industrial engineers had been doing the same thing for decades. We probably could have saved 18 months of work if we’d crossed campus and talked to an engineering student. That taught me not to be so insular, and I hope to get that message across to young researchers.”

Never Giving Up: UPMC, Pitt Researchers Receive Grants Totaling $800,000 from V Foundation

PITTSBURGH, Oct. 21, 2014 – Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI), partner with UPMC CancerCenter, have been awarded a grant from the V Foundation for Cancer Research to study gene mutations in patients whose head and neck cancer was caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) in hopes of finding a more effective, less toxic therapy for this often painful, disfiguring disease.

The three-year, $600,000 grant was awarded to principal investigator Julie Bauman, M.D., M.P.H., associate professor of medicine and director of the Head and Neck Cancer Section in the Division of Hematology-Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and co-director of the UPMC Head and Neck Cancer Center of Excellence. The V Foundation, formed by ESPN and former college basketball coach Jim Valvano who is known for challenging people to never give up, also recognized Pitt’s Kara Bernstein, Ph.D., with a V Scholar award, worth $200,000 over two years.

“Coach Valvano established the V Foundation in 1993, the same year he lost his own battle with cancer. His dream was to find a cure for cancer, and we share in that dream here at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute,” said Nancy E. Davidson, M.D., director UPCI and UPMC CancerCenter. “These are highly competitive grants, and we are so pleased that Pitt investigators were recognized.”

Dr. Bauman said the grant will help researchers build on existing scientific knowledge and pioneer new treatments for head and neck cancer, which affects more than 50,000 people in the U.S. and 600,000 people worldwide each year. The primary cause of head and neck cancer in North America and Europe is becoming oral infection with HPV. Although HPV-related cancer responds well to intensive treatment, combinations of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy can result in permanent changes to uniquely human functions: facial expression, speech and swallowing.

“We’ve already learned that half of HPV-related head and neck cancers demonstrate abnormalities in a gene known as PIK3CA,” Dr. Bauman said. “We’re now learning how alterations in this gene cooperate with the virus to transform benign HPV infections into cancer. In addition, we are conducting a clinical trial to see whether a new drug that targets PIK3CA improves response in patients with HPV-related cancer. Ultimately, we aim to identify more effective and less toxic treatments, and even to prevent the transformation of HPV infection into cancer.”

Dr. Bauman is collaborating on the study with Jennifer Grandis, M.D., F.A.C.S., Pitt’s vice chair for research, professor of otolaryngology and pharmacology, and program leader for UPCI’s Head & Neck Cancer Program; Michelle Ozbun, Ph.D., the Maralyn S. Budke Endowed Professor of Viral Oncology at the University of New Mexico Cancer Center; Uma Duvvuri, M.D., Ph.D., Pitt assistant professor of otolaryngology; Andrew Cowan, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of surgery, Division of Otolaryngology, University of New Mexico Cancer Center; and Simion Chiosea, M.D., of the UPMC Anatomic Pathology Department.

The V Foundation has awarded more than $100 million for cancer research to more than 100 facilities nationwide since its inception. The translational research grants are designed to accelerate laboratory findings with the goal of benefiting patients more quickly. The V Scholar grants are designed to help early career cancer investigators develop into promising future research talents.

As a V Scholar, Dr. Bernstein will use her award to investigate why people who have mutations in proteins known as RAD51 paralogues are more susceptible to getting cancer – particularly breast and ovarian – and to identify methods for treating their specific cancers.

“Our goal is to uncover individualized cancer treatment for these particular tumors so these patients will have the best outcomes possible,” Dr. Bernstein said.

University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Launches Initiative to Emphasize Concussions Are Treatable

PITTSBURGH, Oct. 22, 2014 – At a time when the national concussion conversation instills fear and uncertainty among parents and athletes at all levels, the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program is working to change the current discussion where two powerful messages are lost: Concussions can be treated, and there are evidence-based therapies that result in full recoveries every day.

In striving to shift the national discussion to one based in fact and research, UPMC and the Concussion Program are unveiling the online destination ReThinkConcussions.com as part of an initiative to raise awareness about scientifically proven treatments currently available. The Concussion Program, the first in the world when it opened its doors in 2000, treats more sports-related concussions than any other program nationally with 17,000 patient visits per year. UPMC’s program consistently contributes to innovations in the field with nearly 20 published, peer-reviewed research studies annually.

“An important reality is this: Concussion is treatable if managed properly,” said Michael “Micky” Collins, Ph.D., clinical and executive director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program. “With all the new research we’ve done and the nearly 200 papers we’ve helped to publish in the past decade or so, we now are able to provide proven treatments and evidence-based rehabilitation therapies. That should be the conversation now instead of the near-hysteria.”

“People should think of concussions as a treatable injury in the right hands, not some untreatable condition that causes you to retreat to a dark room. The individualized approach to this injury, the ability to use a multidisciplinary team to return patients to normal lives, has changed the course of the injury here – and our successes could be repeated across the world, too,” added Dr. Collins.

RethinkConcussions.com offers an interactive guide to understanding concussions and how UPMC approaches this complex but unseen injury. The website features information on concussion therapies and prevalent myths. It explains UPMC’s multidisciplinary approach to treating six different types of concussions – each carrying its own symptoms and outcomes. Additionally, the site provides insight into patients’ treatment experiences and emotional journeys through some of their stories.

As part of this important initiative, professional athletes and former UPMC patients such as NASCAR great Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Major League catcher David Ross tell their powerful tales in separate videos that will air on television regionally (Ross) and nationally (Earnhardt Jr.), in addition to being found at the new website. Each participated in the spots without compensation, wanting to help spread awareness and education about concussions and their successful rehabilitations.

“We went through activities with results that made sense,” Earnhardt says in his video. He visited the clinic and consulted with Dr. Collins regularly following multiple crashes in fall 2012, keeping him out of consecutive races for the first time in his career. “The best decision I made was to go to UPMC.”

Ross similarly turned to Dr. Collins following two injuries that removed him from behind the plate in 2013. He credits UPMC and its experts with developing an individualized program that allowed him to return to starting at catcher in time for a dramatic post-season run to a championship. As Ross says, “Without UPMC, I would not be a baseball player anymore. They saved my career.”

Other pro athletes who are or will be featured in the ReThinkConcussions.com initiative include former NFL quarterback Brady Quinn, Major League second baseman Brian Roberts and Tyler Hansbrough of the NBA, among others. Athletes of all ages and levels of play – from recreational to amateur to high school and beyond – also will participate in the effort, demonstrating how concussions strike every sport and walk of life.

Dr. Collins and the UPMC Concussion Program have been at the forefront of the national concussion community for years. He is a co-developer of the ImPACT neurocognitive test, a co-author of the Centers for Disease Control’s “Concussion Tool Kit for Physicians,” a consultant to a variety of professional and collegiate leagues, and a frequent presenter nationally and internationally helping to train thousands of health care professionals in concussion management and evaluation.

Dr. Collins leads a team of more than 30 clinicians and researchers, comprised of neuropsychologists, primary care sports medicine physicians, physiatrists, otoneurologists, physical therapists, neurosurgeons, neuroradiologists and orthopaedic surgeons, all devoted to concussion evaluation, treatment and rehabilitation.

“Concussion isn’t something you can detect on a CT scan or an MRI, or with a standard neurologic examination. To ‘see’ this injury you have to know what questions to ask, and our research has shown us this,” Dr. Collins said. “By asking the right questions and looking at the right systems in the right way with the right tools, we can put together a very coherent approach to understanding the injury and determining active treatment strategies. That’s the important message for people to know now.”

Pitt Public Health Finds Association Between Air Toxics and Childhood Autism

PITTSBURGH, Oct. 22, 2014 – Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) were more likely to have been exposed to higher levels of certain air toxics during their mothers’ pregnancies and the first two years of life compared to children without the condition, according to the preliminary findings of a University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health investigation of children in southwestern Pennsylvania.

This research, funded by The Heinz Endowments, will be presented today at the American Association for Aerosol Research annual meeting in Orlando, Fla.

“Autism spectrum disorders are a major public health problem, and their prevalence has increased dramatically,” said Evelyn Talbott, Dr.P.H., principal investigator of the analysis and professor of epidemiology at Pitt Public Health. “Despite its serious social impact, the causes of autism are poorly understood. Very few studies of autism have included environmental exposures while taking into account other personal and behavioral risk factors. Our analysis is an addition to the small but growing body of research that considers air toxics as one of the risk factors for ASD.”

Dr. Talbott and her colleagues performed a population-based study of families with and without ASD living in six southwestern Pennsylvania counties. The researchers found links between increased levels of chromium and styrene and childhood autism spectrum disorder, a condition that affects one in 68 children.

“This study brings us a step closer toward understanding why autism affects so many families in the Pittsburgh region and nationwide – and reinforces in sobering detail that air quality matters,” said Grant Oliphant, president of The Heinz Endowments. “Our aspirations for truly becoming the most livable city cannot be realized if our children’s health is threatened by dangerous levels of air toxics. Addressing this issue must remain one of our region’s top priorities.”

Autism spectrum disorders are a range of conditions characterized by social deficits and communication difficulties that typically become apparent early in childhood. Reported cases of ASD have risen nearly eight-fold in the last two decades. While previous studies have shown the increase to be partially due to changes in diagnostic practices and greater public awareness of autism, this does not fully explain the increased prevalence. Both genetic and environmental factors are believed to be partially responsible.

Dr. Talbott and her team interviewed 217 families of children with ASD and compared these findings with information from two separate sets of comparison families of children without ASD born during the same time period within the six-county area. The families lived in Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Washington and Westmoreland counties, and the children were born between 2005 and 2009.

One of the strengths of the study was the ability to have “two types of controls, which provided a comparison of representative air toxics in neighborhoods of those children with and without ASD,” said Dr. Talbott.

For each family, the team used the National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA) to estimate the exposure to 30 pollutants known to cause endocrine disruption or neurodevelopmental issues. NATA is the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ongoing comprehensive evaluation of air toxics in the U.S., most recently conducted in 2005.

Based on the child’s exposure to concentrations of air toxics during the mother’s pregnancy and the first two years of life, the researchers noted that children who fell into higher exposure groups to styrene and chromium were at a 1.4- to two-fold greater risk of ASD, after accounting for the age of the mother, maternal cigarette smoking, race and education. Other NATA compounds associated with increased risk included cyanide, methylene chloride, methanol and arsenic. As these compounds often are found in combination with each other, further study is needed.

Styrene is used in the production of plastics and paints, but also is one of the products of combustion when burning gasoline in vehicles. Chromium is a heavy metal, and air pollution containing it typically is the result of industrial processes and the hardening of steel, but it also can come from power plants. Cyanide, methylene chloride, methanol and arsenic are all used in a number of industries or can be found in vehicle exhaust.

“Our results add to the growing body of evidence linking environmental exposures, such as air pollution, to ASD,” said Dr. Talbott. “The next step will be confirming our findings with studies that measure the specific exposure to air pollutants at an individual level to verify these EPA-modeled estimates.”

Additional investigators on this study were Vincent Arena, Ph.D., Judith Rager, M.P.H., Ravi Sharma, Ph.D., and Lynne Marshall, M.S., all of Pitt.

Pitt/McGowan Institute Team Discovers Stem Cells in the Esophagus

PITTSBURGH, Oct. 16, 2014 – Despite previous indications to the contrary, the esophagus does have its own pool of stem cells, said researchers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in an animal study published online today in Cell Reports. The findings could lead to new insights into the development and treatment of esophageal cancer and the precancerous condition known as Barrett’s esophagus.

According to the American Cancer Society, more than 18,000 people will be diagnosed with esophageal cancer in the U.S. in 2014 and almost 15,500 people will die from it. In Barrett’s esophagus, the lining of the esophagus changes for unknown reasons to resemble that of the intestine, though gastro-esophageal reflux disease or GERD is a risk factor for its development.

“The esophageal lining must renew regularly as cells slough off into the gastrointestinal tract,” said senior investigator Eric Lagasse, Pharm.D., Ph.D., associate professor of pathology, Pitt School of Medicine, and director of the Cancer Stem Cell Center at the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine. “To do that, cells in the deeper layers of the esophagus divide about twice a week to produce daughter cells that become the specialized cells of the lining. Until now, we haven’t been able to determine whether all the cells in the deeper layers are the same or if there is a subpopulation of stem cells there.”

The research team grew pieces or “organoids” of esophageal tissue from mouse samples, and then conducted experiments to identify and track the different cells in the basal layer of the tissue. They found a small population of cells that divide more slowly, are more primitive, can generate specialized or differentiated cells, and have the ability to self-renew, which is a defining trait of stem cells.

“It was thought that there were no stem cells in the esophagus because all the cells were dividing rather than resting or quiescent, which is more typical of stem cells,” Dr. Lagasse noted. “Our findings reveal that there indeed are esophageal stem cells, and rather than being quiescent, they divide slowly compared to the rest of the deeper layer cells.”

In future work, the researchers will examine human esophageal tissues for evidence of stem cell dysfunction in Barrett’s esophagus disease.

“Some scientists have speculated that abnormalities of esophageal stem cells could be the origin of the tissue changes that occur in Barrett’s disease,” Dr. Lagasse said. “Our current and future studies could make it possible to test this long-standing hypothesis.”

The project’s co-investigators are Aaron DeWard, Ph.D., and Julie Cramer, Ph.D., both of Pitt’s Department of Pathology and the McGowan Institute.

The research was funded by grants from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, National Institutes of Health grant DK08571, the McGowan Institute and the University of Pittsburgh Department of Pathology Postdoctoral Research Training Program.

Children’s Brain Care Institute Researcher to Be Featured in Documentary on Multiple Sclerosis

PITTSBURGH, Oct. 15, 2014 – A researcher from the Division of Child Neurology at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, will be profiled in an upcoming documentary produced by the National Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Society. Sharyl L. Fyffe-Maricich, PhD, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, will be one of four female researchers who work in MS featured in the film.

MS is the most prevalent neurodegenerative disease in young adults, affecting more than 2 million people worldwide. The mission of the National MS Society is to mobilize people and resources to drive research for a cure and address the challenges of everyone affected by MS.

Dr. Fyffe-Maricich’s lab is interested in understanding the molecules and signaling pathways that are essential for controlling the onset of myelination and determining the thickness of the myelin sheaths that are generated. The importance of myelination becomes obvious in diseases such as multiple sclerosis where autoimmune-mediated demyelination throughout the central nervous system (CNS) results in devastating functional disability. Her lab is interested in learning more about these processes both during development and after demyelinating injuries in the adult.

To investigate, Dr. Fyffe-Maricich and her colleagues use a variety of techniques, including rodent behavioral analysis, immunohistochemistry, electron microscopy, cell culture, and biochemistry to analyze various genetic mouse mutants. The ultimate goal of Dr. Fyffe-Maricich’s work is to develop new treatment approaches for patients with MS.

Pitt Gets $11 Million from NIH to Lead Center of Excellence in National Big Data Research Consortium

PITTSBURGH, Oct. 9, 2014 – The National Institutes of Health has awarded the University of Pittsburgh an $11 million, four-year grant to lead a Big Data to Knowledge Center of Excellence, an initiative that will help scientists capitalize more fully on large amounts of available data and to make data science a more prominent component of biomedical research.

Much of science focuses on understanding the “why” or “how” in nature, and now the challenge is to find these answers within terabytes and petabytes of data, or what is now known as “Big Data,” said Gregory Cooper, M.D., Ph.D., professor and vice chair of the Department of Biomedical Informatics, Pitt School of Medicine and director of the new Center for Causal Modeling and Discovery.

“Individual biomedical researchers now have the technology to generate an enormous quantity and diversity of data. Adequately analyzing these data to discover new biomedical knowledge remains a major challenge, however,” Dr. Cooper said. “Our goal is to make it much easier for researchers to analyze big data to discover causal relationships in biomedicine.”

The Pitt Center for Causal Modeling and Discovery will be part of an elite national team addressing the challenges of Big Data in biomedicine.

“As part of a national consortium, this Center of Excellence will put Pitt on the map as a home of Big Data science,” said Arthur S. Levine, M.D., senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and John and Gertrude Petersen Dean of the School of Medicine. “Our strengths in this field have stimulated collaborations with leading institutions, including Harvard and Stanford, and now we will be able to further develop such partnerships in many more meaningful ways.”

According to center co-director Jeremy Berg, Ph.D., associate senior vice chancellor for science strategy and planning in the health sciences and director of Pitt’s Institute for Personalized Medicine, researchers now have access to a tremendous amount of information from electronic health records, digital images and molecular analyses of genes, proteins and metabolites.

“The good news is that we have so much data. But the bad news is that we have so much data,” Dr. Berg said. “Our challenge is to find strategies that enable us to sort through all this collected information efficiently and effectively to find meaningful relationships that lead us to new insights in health and disease.”

A collaboration of researchers at Pitt, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, and Yale University, the new center will develop and disseminate tools that can find causal links in very large and complex biomedical data. Faculty in CMU’s Department of Philosophy, led by Clark Glymour, Ph.D., Alumni University Professor and founding chair, are key partners in this data science effort; and Nicholas Nystrom, Ph.D., director of strategic applications at the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, will work to optimize these tools for a high-performance computing environment.

The Center includes a team that will develop and implement causal modeling and discovery algorithms, or processes, to support the data analyses of three separate investigative groups, each focusing on a distinct biomedical problem whose answer lies in a sea of data: cell signals that drive the development of cancer, the molecular basis of lung disease susceptibility and severity, and the functional connections within the human brain (the “connectome”).

Each project will act as a test bed for the development, rigorous testing and refinement of analytic tools. When successful, these algorithms and software likely can be applied to other biomedical research questions. The center will provide free, open-source software that scientists all over the world can use with their own datasets to uncover causal biomedical relationships. Their feedback will further enhance the algorithms and software.

“The center also will be a training ground for the next generation of data scientists who will advance and accelerate the development and broader use of Big Data science models and methods,” said center co-director Ivet Bahar, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor and JK Vries Chair, Department of Computational and Systems Biology, Pitt School of Medicine. “We will create new educational materials as well as workshops and online tutorials to facilitate the use of causal modeling and discovery algorithms by the broader scientific community and to enable efficient translation of knowledge between basic biological and applied biomedical sciences.”

Other collaborators include the California Institute of Technology, Rutgers University, University of Crete, and the University of North Carolina.

“Data creation in today’s research is exponentially more rapid than anything we anticipated even a decade ago,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. “Mammoth data sets are emerging at an accelerated pace in today’s biomedical research and these funds will help us overcome the obstacles to maximizing their utility. The potential of these data, when used effectively, is quite astounding.”

UPMC Investigation into GI Scope-Related Infections Changes National Guidelines

PITTSBURGH, Oct. 9, 2014 – National guidelines for the cleaning of certain gastrointestinal (GI) scopes are likely to be updated due to findings from UPMC’s infection prevention team.

The research and updated disinfection technique will be shared Saturday in Philadelphia at ID Week 2014, an annual meeting of health professionals in infectious disease fields.

“Patient safety is our top priority,” said senior author Carlene Muto, M.D., M.S., director of infection prevention at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital. “We are confident that the change from disinfection to sterilization of GI scopes is necessary in preventing serious infections and we are glad to share our findings with hospitals nationwide.”

After tracking and monitoring  an uptick in antibiotic-resistant infections in 2012 in patients who had undergone an Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) procedure with flexible endoscopy scopes, UPMC began investigating the devices, which are equipped with an “elevator channel” used to deflect accessories passed through the biopsy channel and assist clinicians in examining a patient’s gastrointestinal tract. The elevator channel is most commonly found on ERCP and endoscopic ultrasound scopes.

UPMC took the scopes out of service, notified the manufacturer and began an investigation into the disinfecting process that takes place between each use. When it was ultimately determined that the normal process failed to eliminate all bacteria, UPMC switched to gas sterilization using ethylene oxide to ensure proper disinfection of the scopes.

“Throughout UPMC, no additional health care-associated infections have been linked to scopes since switching to sterilization,” said Dr. Muto.

The move from high-level disinfection of endoscopes to sterilization of them was foreshadowed earlier this year at the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology annual conference in Anaheim, Calif., by Bill Rutala, Ph.D., M.P.H., author of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Guideline for Disinfection and Sterilization in Healthcare Facilities. He said he believed the transition would take place in the next five years.

Approximately 11 million gastrointestinal endoscopies are performed annually in the U.S. and contaminated scopes have been linked to more hospital-acquired infections than any other type of medical device.

Pitt Researchers Receive $1.25 Million from Defense Department to Make Whole-Eye Transplantation a Reality

PITTSBURGH, Oct. 7, 2014 University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine researchers have been awarded $1.25 million from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) to fund two projects that aim to establish the groundwork for the nation’s first whole-eye transplantation program. 

Offered through the DOD’s Vision Research Program, the grants support conceptually innovative research that ultimately could lead to critical discoveries or major advancements. The Pitt researchers will lead a multidisciplinary consortium that includes clinicians and scientists from Harvard University and the University of California, San Diego.

Although corneal transplants are routinely performed today,  whole-eye transplantation has remained an unrealized goal in vision restoration because of challenges related to immune rejection and reestablishing the connectivity of the optic nerve to the visual centers in the brain.

The Audacious Restorative Goals in Ocular Sciences (ARGOS) Consortium established at Pitt will be the first cross-disciplinary, systematic attempt to explore strategies to enable corneal regeneration, retinal cell survival, long-distance optic nerve regeneration with cortical integration and whole-eyeball transplantation.

“Recent advances in our understanding of retinal ganglion cell survival and successes with optic nerve regeneration in experimental studies strengthen our hope that whole-eye transplantation is an audacious yet achievable goal,” said principal investigator Vijay Gorantla, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of surgery in the Department of Plastic Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh, and the administrative medical director of the Pittsburgh Reconstructive Transplant Program at UPMC. “Our experience with transplanting complex immunogenic tissues, such as the hand, will help us optimize treatments for rejection in eye transplants.”

According to the DOD, blast injuries are the most common for soldiers wounded in action, with up to 40 percent of blast injuries affecting the eyes. Approaches to minimize worsening of injury to the eye after trauma, preserve and protect residual retinal and optic nerve function, and restore vision are all goals that will be investigated.

“This is an aggressive program with very high-risk and high-reward scenarios. We’re excited to be leading the project and honored to be collaborating with global leaders in optic nerve regeneration,” said co-principal investigator Joel Schuman, M.D., chair of the Department of Ophthalmology, Pitt School of Medicine, and director of the UPMC Eye Center. “By solving one facet of the problem at a time, the long dreamed-of goal of whole-eye transplantation may be possible with the promise of a better life for millions of patients worldwide.”

Sub-awardees of the current award include Jeffrey Goldberg, M.D., of the University of California, San Diego; and Larry Benowitz, Ph.D., of Harvard University.

In a related project  led by principal investigator Kia Washington, M.D., assistant professor of plastic surgery, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, the research team will focus on establishing baseline viability and structural integrity in an  animal model of whole-eye transplantation. The researchers will examine immune rejection and evaluate the usage of extracellular matrix therapy for improvement of optic nerve function after whole-eye transplantation.

“We have successfully performed an eye transplant in a small animal model,” said Dr. Washington. “This ongoing project may eventually lead to restoration of vision after trauma or degenerative disease.”

The Louis J. Fox Center for Vision Restoration will provide additional key funding for the whole-eye transplantation effort.

UPMC Partners with GK Klinika to Develop and Co-Manage Cancer Hospital in Lithuania

 PITTSBURGH, Oct. 7, 2014 GK Klinika Group, a private health care company in the Baltic region, is partnering with UPMC for its help in developing and co-managing a new, 100-bed cancer hospital in Vilnius, Lithuania.

Scheduled to open in 2017 and funded by GK Klinika, the hospital is expected to care for patients covered by both private and public insurance to enhance the quality of oncology care throughout the Baltic region. Under the 15-year agreement, UPMC will assist with project planning, construction and training, and will co-manage all clinical and administrative activities after the facility opens.

The prime minister of Lithuania, Algirdas Butkevicius, will participate in a signing ceremony at UPMC’s headquarters today. The Lithuanian government is actively working to encourage foreign business expansion in that country, particularly in its highly advanced life sciences sector, and expects that this partnership with UPMC will foster U.S.-Lithuania relations and geopolitical stability in the region. 

“As an international leader in health care and medical research — and one that has proven that its model of care can be adapted to other countries and cultures — UPMC was the logical choice to be our partner in creating a world-class cancer facility,” said Karapet Babaian, M.D., chief executive officer of GK Klinika and of Baltijos Medicinos Tyrimu Institutas (BMTI), the unit that is working with UPMC. “The scope and length of this agreement is a testament to our faith in this new partnership.”

GK Klinika is one of the leading private clinics in the Baltic region, with more than 15 years of experience and a reputation for promoting innovative medical technology to achieve better patient outcomes. 

“GK Klinika and UPMC share the same vision: to give patients access to the best cancer care in the world close to home. We look forward to working with our partner to make that dream a reality in Lithuania,” said Charles Bogosta, president of UPMC’s International and Commercial Services Division.

UPMC’s wide-ranging assistance to GK Klinika will include hiring and training of staff in Pittsburgh and Vilnius, information technology planning, developing early cancer detection programs, conducting a genomics-testing pilot project and providing disease-specific treatment algorithms. UPMC physicians also will periodically provide consults related to advanced surgeries performed at the new hospital and second opinions via telemedicine.

The chief executive officer of the new hospital will be appointed by mutual agreement of both partners. 

Starting with its partnership to create a transplant center in Italy 18 years ago, UPMC has expanded its international footprint to include operations or services in countries that now include Ireland, India, China, Singapore, Japan and Kazakhstan. Through its international growth and commercialization efforts with industry partners, UPMC is diversifying its sources of revenue, fueling economic development in its local communities, and strengthening its ability to recruit and retain the best clinicians to improve health care outcomes globally.

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