GRU/UGA Medical Partnership translates research to the bedside
While the medical partnership was founded to secure a new generation of doctors in Georgia, it now also facilitates groundbreaking research.
The Georgia Regents University/University of Georgia Medical Partnership in Athens, created to help alleviate a statewide shortage of physicians that threatens the health of Georgians, now is facilitating research that impacts not just the lives of Georgians, but of people across the globe.
The medical partnership’s four-year medical education program in Athens combines the significant instructional and research resources of UGA, the state’s flagship land-grant research university, with the expertise of the Medical College of Georgia at Georgia Regents University, Georgia’s public medical school. The first class of the GRU/UGA Medical Partnership graduated in 2014.
But in addition to increasing the number of physicians in Georgia, the partnership is expanding research collaborations among faculty at GRU and UGA, and other institutions, creating new insights into the prevention and treatment of diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
“Many of the colleges at the University of Georgia are invested in research that spans the definition of ‘clinical and translational research.’ With the development of the medical partnership campus in Athens, the community has attracted a growing cadre of outstanding young physician faculty with both cutting-edge clinical skills and research expertise.”
—Barbara Schuster, M.D., Dean, UGA Medical Partnership
Examples of research involving medical partnership faculty include:
Peripheral Artery Disease—A team of researchers is studying how different ways of exercising on a treadmill may help patients with peripheral arterial disease, or PAD, who suffer from leg pain when walking. In PAD, poor blood flow and resulting low oxygen delivery to the leg muscles can cause leg pain when walking. One way this pain can be improved is by repeated walking exercise to the point of pain. This prescription for exercise is not well tolerated by patients with PAD. Accordingly, the researchers are looking for a new way of achieving the same benefit for patients while also trying to understand what causes this problem.
This study is a collaboration among faculty members at the GRU/UGA Medical Partnership, Dr. Jonathan Murrow; the University of Georgia, Dr. Kevin McCully in kinesiology and Dr. Stephen Rathbun in biostatistics); and Emory University (Dr. Arshed Quyyumi). Patients are recruited from the Athens Cardiology Group Practice and undergo training at Athens Regional Medical Center and at the Ramsey Center at UGA.
- Genetic Atrial Fibrillation—The Genetic Atrial Fibrillation study is one of only a few trials in cardiology capitalizing on the dream of personalized medicine—using a person’s own genetic makeup to guide therapy. For patients with atrial fibrillation, an arrhythmia occurring in over 4 million Americans, treatment with beta blockers is a mainstay of therapy. Recent research suggests that beta blocker therapy can be tailored to a person’s genetic makeup. For the 50 percent of people with a particular mutation in the receptor for adrenaline, treatment with the beta blocker bucindolol could reduce the burden of atrial fibrillation by up to 80 percent. The Genetic-AF trial seeks to establish the safety and efficacy of bucindolol in genotype guided therapy for patients with heart failure and atrial fibrillation. Dr. Kent Nilsson is the lead investigator on this important research effort.
- Cardiac Ablation Safety—When medications for atrial fibrillation fail to control the symptoms, cardiac ablation can provide life altering symptom relief by destroying the diseased tissue that starts the arrhythmia. Dr. Kent Nilsson, GRU/UGA Medical Partnership, and Zion Tse, in the UGA College of Engineering, are working to increase the safety and efficacy of ablation by integrating real-time MRI imaging with existing 3-D mapping techniques.
- Tumor Aggressiveness—With seed funding from the OVPR Faculty Research Grant Program, Drs. Melissa Davis and Michele Monteil, both GRU/UGA Medical Partnership faculty members, are exploring how genetic ancestry may be linked to unique immunological responses that facilitate tumor aggressiveness. The results could point the way toward immunotherapies for tumor types that overburden people of African descent—tumor types for which there are currently no good targeted therapies, and which contribute greatly to much higher mortality in these populations.
Tumors and Environment—Dr. Melissa Davis (GRU/UGA Medical Partnership) and Dr. Petros Nikolinakos (University Cancer and Blood Center) are working together to determine how tumors are impacted by environmental exposures. Using state-of-the-art genomics approaches, Davis measures how a breast cancer patient’s lifetime exposure to certain toxins at their residences may correlate with the epigenetic changes in their DNA and tumors. Sequencing their “methylomes” and comparing them to exposure metrics, developed by Davis and Dr. Sara Robb in the College of Public Health, Davis hopes to find patterns of DNA methylation that correspond with cancer gene expression changes.
Many of the breast cancer patients being recruited into the study are rural residents of Georgia, a population that is unique because of its exposures to agricultural and manufacturing toxin sources, and because rural populations often go overlooked in cancer research. This team of doctors and investigators are working to understand what causes so much cancer in these communities.
“The new clinical research building will be the hub for integrating research scientists and clinicians to fulfill the promise of a medical campus in Northeast Georgia—educating outstanding physicians for Georgia and expanding the research that will positively impact the health of all Georgians.”
—Barbara Schuster, M.D., Dean, UGA Medical Partnership
GRU and UGA are supporting these research efforts with funding and facilities. A seed grant program has provided up to $250,000 to inter-institutional teams to support research that translates findings from basic research to clinical practice. Over 40 proposals were reviewed and the first four successful teams began working on their projects in January.
A dedicated clinical research facility on UGA’s Health Sciences Campus is scheduled to open in the early fall of 2015. Faculty members from a variety of backgrounds, including UGA’s kinesiology department, the College of Pharmacy, the College of Family and Consumer Sciences, the College of Public Health, and the College of Engineering, are eagerly awaiting the opportunity to work with clinical faculty members from the medical partnership on research efforts that will have an impact on the lives of Georgians.