UMKC Vision Research Center receives NIH award to promote diversity in health-related research as part of ongoing glaucoma studies

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded the UMKC Vision Research Center a new $120,399 grant that promotes the training of researchers from diverse backgrounds as part of ongoing research projects to develop novel glaucoma therapies.

Funded through the NIH’s National Eye Institute (NEI), the new funding is part of a larger NIH initiative to enhance the diversity of the research workforce. It will aid in recruiting and supporting students, postdoctorates and eligible investigators from diverse backgrounds including those from racial and ethnic groups that have been shown to be underrepresented in health-related research.

“We are pleased to receive this support from the NIH,” said Peter Koulen, Ph.D., director of the Vision Research Center. “This funding is a substantial contribution to our mission to provide a more diverse workforce in biomedicine and the overall mission to discover new and improved treatments and therapies for vision health world-wide.”

The funding is part of Koulen’s NEI-supported program exploring novel therapeutic strategies to preserve the viability and function of the nerve cells of the retina affected by glaucoma. The research targets a novel mechanism of nerve cell protection utilizing intracellular calcium signaling as a drug target to treat degeneration of nerve cells in glaucoma.

“The new award is part of research that will allow us to generate data needed for the development of novel glaucoma drugs to complement existing therapies targeting abnormally high pressure in the eye,” Koulen said. Koulen and his team at the Vision Research Center received a $1.16 million NIH grant earlier this year to investigate a mechanism that allows nerve cells to communicate effectively and could lead to the development of such new treatments for glaucoma.

Glaucoma is a major cause of irreversible vision loss and blindness in the United States and worldwide. The disease causes degeneration of the retina and optic nerve, which connects the eye to the brain. Preventing such degeneration and the death of affected cells is currently the only feasible way to prevent vision loss due to glaucoma.

In the past year, Koulen has won two other major NIH research grants. His current study of new chemical compounds to treat and prevent age-related macular degeneration received a $1.16 million grant. He is also part of an innovative $1.5 million project exploring a novel tissue-preservation method that could help meet far-reaching clinical needs in ophthalmology and other fields of medicine

This glaucoma research will focus on alternative strategies directly targeting the damaging effects of the disease on the retina and optic nerve.

“Just like elevated blood pressure predisposes patients to stroke, high pressure inside the eye is a predisposing factor for glaucoma,” Koulen said. “There are currently several therapies available to patients to reduce abnormally high eye pressure, but when these therapies fail or cease to be effective, glaucoma and the accompanying vision loss continue to progress.”

Koulen’s project, including the new award to promote diversity in health-related research, will determine how to boost the cell-to-cell communication that retinal nerve cells use to defend themselves from disease and injury. The hope is this will protect these cells from the damaging effects of glaucoma.

If successful, Koulen’s research will result in new drug candidates that would contribute to “neuroprotection” as a strategy to treat and prevent glaucoma.

New therapies could potentially act in concert with current eye pressure lowering drugs. Other areas of medicine, such as cancer treatment, have effectively employed the concept of using complementary drug action in combination therapies.

Grant will help Black churches fight COVID-19

Berkley-Patton, JanetteCOVID-19 has infected, hospitalized and killed Black Americans at a higher rate compared with whites. As it has with other health disparities, the University of Missouri-Kansas City is going to partner with churches to fight this one. The National Institutes of Health has awarded UMKC a two-year, $1.9 million grant to do so as part of its Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics-Underserved Populations (RADx-UP) initiative.

“By working with 16 churches, which are trusted institutions in the African American community, we will greatly expand COVID-19 testing opportunities and access to care in low-income areas of Kansas City,” said Jannette Berkley-Patton, Ph.D., principal investigator of the grant, director of the UMKC Health Equity Institute and a professor at the School of Medicine. “This RADx-UP grant will help people who probably never would have gotten tested get the support they need.”

The team of investigators on the grant are from UMKC, Children’s Mercy, University of Kansas Medical Center, University of Massachusetts, University of California-San Francisco and Johns Hopkins University. In addition to churches and their leaders and members, they will work in partnership with Calvary Community Outreach Network and the Kansas City Health Department for testing, contact tracing and linkage to care services.

“By working with 16 churches, which are trusted institutions in the African American community, we will greatly expand COVID-19 testing opportunities and access to care in low-income areas of Kansas City. This RADx-UP grant will help people who probably never would have gotten tested get the support they need.” – Jannette Berkley-Patton

“One of our aims with the grant is to not only expand testing but to also help get the community prepared for the vaccine,” said Mary Anne Jackson, M.D., an investigator of the grant, dean of the UMKC School of Medicine and an infectious disease expert at Children’s Mercy. “Vaccine confidence relies on trust and transparent communication of vaccine science and safety. The mistrust among people of color about the COVID-19 vaccine stems back toward experience in other research impacting this population, namely the Tuskegee trials in 1932 to study syphilis where Black males were not provided treatment.”

Key social determinants contribute to the disparities for Blacks and COVID-19 including essential public-facing jobs, cultural norms like medical and contact tracing mistrust and limited access to health care. African Americans also have a high burden of chronic health conditions including obesity, diabetes and heart disease, which put them at an increased risk for COVID-19.

Studies, including UMKC investigations led by Berkley-Patton, have shown that community-engaged research with African American churches has led to health screening uptake for HIV and STD testing and reducing risks for diabetes. Yet, no proven COVID-19 testing interventions exist for African American churches, which have wide reach and influence in their communities, high attendance rates and supportive health and social services for community members.

At churches, the grant aims to reach people through sermons, testimonials, church bulletins, and text messages. This also includes faith leaders promoting testing – and getting tested in front of their congregations – so that people can actually see what the testing process looks like.

To date, Berkley-Patton’s work has been supported by more than $12 million in federal grants over the past 14 years. The community-engaged research she has conducted in partnership with faith communities has benefited people in the Kansas City area as well as Alabama and Jamaica.

“At UMKC, we fight racial inequity at all levels, and that includes life-saving health care at our public urban research university,” said UMKC Chancellor Mauli Agrawal. “We are proud of the work Dr. Berkley-Patton is leading through proven strategies at places of worship. We know this team of investigators and their partners will help keep our community safer from COVID-19.”

UMKC Trustees honor SOM’s Peter Koulen for distinguished work in research

Koulen, PeterThe UMKC Board of Trustees has selected UMKC School of Medicine’s vision and neuroscience researcher Peter Koulen, Ph.D., as the recipient of the 2020 UMKC Trustees’ Faculty Fellow Award.

Dr . Koulen is the school’s Felix and Carmen Sabates/Missouri Endowed Chair in Vision Research and serves as director of basic research at the Vision Research Center. Under his guidance, the research center and the UMKC Department of Ophthalmology have secured millions of dollars in grants from the National Institutes of Health and other recognized sources for their groundbreaking work in developing technology and therapies to recognize and treat chronic diseases of the eye and brain.

He has been awarded more than 50 extramural grants totaling over $15 million, and he recently was the recipient of two R01 NIH/NEI awards totaling over $4 million. With a focus on the retina as part of the central nervous system, he has peer-reviewed publications in more than 100 prestigious journals including International Journal Molecular Science, Journal of Cell Science, Cellular Molecular Neurobiology, and Neuroscience. He also has been awarded three patents.

A member of an NIH study section committee, and active reviewer for prestigious scientific journals, he has been the recipient of more than 20 awards and honors since joining our School of Medicine, including recognition as the NT Veatch Award for Research and Creativity in 2013. Dr. Koulen’s work has been acknowledged worldwide. The Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology, a global organization of researchers, honored Koulen as a member of its 2018 Fellows Class.

He also serves as a mentor and sponsor for students involved in research and he has effectively launched the careers of the next generation of physician scientists. His mentorship has placed graduates in highly competitive research environments such as NIH, FDA, Harvard Medical School, Alcon Laboratories, Fresenius and numerous others.

“I am impressed that Dr. Koulen contributes with passion, grace and enthusiasm and that he truly represents what a faculty scholar should exemplify,” said School of Medicine Dean Mary Anne Jackson, M.D.. “It is my pleasure to call him a colleague and to work with him at our University.”

Each year, UMKC’s Board of Trustees selects an established faculty member for the Faculty Fellow Award to honor a nationally and internationally recognized record of research and creative achievements at UMKC.

Yusheng Liu, Ph.D., vice chancellor for research in the Office of Research and Economic Development, said the award helps the university enhance and pursue its goal to be a major urban research university with excellence, creativity, and scholarship across all disciplines.

 

 

SOM faculty recognized with annual awards, promotions

School of Medicine faculty took the spotlight during an Oct. 28 program to honor those receiving the school’s annual faculty awards and the recognition of 73 faculty members who received promotions and tenure.

The list of honorees included 58 faculty members who have been promoted to the rank of associate professor and 15 who were promoted to professor. Because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the ceremony took place as a virtual celebration.

This year’s event recognized eight faculty with special honors for their outstanding contributions, including two new awards.

Clinical Affiliate Teaching Award
Emily Hillman, M.D., assistant professor of emergency medicine, received the first Clinical Affiliate Teaching Award. The honor celebrates a faculty member who is recognized for clinical teaching of medical students, graduate program students and/or graduate medical education residents and fellows at one of the school’s major clinical affiliates.

Hillman serves as director of simulation education at the school’s Clinical Training Facility as well as associate director of the emergency medicine residency program and director of the emergency medicine medical education fellowship.

Faculty Researcher Award
John Q. Wang, Ph.D., professor and endowed chair for research, received the school’s first Faculty Research Award. The honor recognizes faculty for clinical and/or bench research that contributes to the advancement of medicine, demonstrates collaboration and mentoring of medical students, residents/fellows, and/or graduate students and faculty, and also enhances the research reputation of the School of Medicine.

Excellence in Diversity & Health Equity in Medicine Award
Molly Uhlenhake, D.O., assistant professor of medicine and Red 7 Docent, receive the award that recognizes faculty engaged in efforts to create a more inclusive institutional culture that promotes success for all. It also recognizes efforts to advance the understanding of health equity, health disparities, cultural competence in medicine, and greater access and opportunities for our surrounding community.

Christopher Papasian, Ph.D., Excellence in Teaching Award
Darla McCarthy, Ph.D., associate professor of basic medical sciences and assistant dean for curriculum, received the honor for a faculty member who has contributed to medical student pre-clinical education innovation at the School of Medicine.

Louise E. Arnold, Ph.D., Excellence in Medical Education Research Award
Gary Sutkin, M.D., professor and associate dean of women’s health, received the award that acknowledges and celebrates a faculty member who has contributed and influenced the advancement of medical education innovation through scholarship and research.

Betty M. Drees, M.D., Excellence in Mentoring Awards
Fariha Shafi, M.D., associate professor of medicine, Gold 6 and Gold 7 Docent, received the 2020 Excellence in Mentoring Award. Peter Koulen, Ph.D., professor, endowed chair and director of basic research at the Vision Research Center, was honored with the Lifetime in Mentoring Award.

The mentoring awards are given annually to celebrate both a junior and a senior faculty member who have made significant contributions to enhancing and developing the careers of faculty trainees as a mentor through their generosity, listening, objectivity and by providing constructive feedback regarding career and professional and personal development.

UMKC Elmer F. Pierson Good Teaching Award
Jennifer Quaintance, Ph.D., associate research professor and assistant dean for assessment and quality improvement, was honored with the university-wide award recognizing outstanding teachers in the Black School and the schools of medicine, dentistry and law.

School of Medicine announces new assistant dean for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion

The School of Medicine announced that Doris C. Agwu, M.P.H., will serve in the new position of assistant dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

Agwu has 11 years of experience with diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in academics, business and community work. Under the leadership of associate dean Tyler Smith, M.D., Agwu will work to expand the school’s focus on current diversity, equity and inclusion programs. Her new role will also include implementing new programs to recruit, educate and serve students, residents and faculty, and emphasize initiatives to ensure a positive learning environment.

At the University of Missouri-Columbia, Agwu earned a bachelor of arts in psychology, a bachelor of science in biology, a minor in business administration and a master’s degree in public health. She served as a research specialist at the University of Missouri Sinclair School of Nursing where she created strategies to address the health care needs of rural Missouri women over the age of 50. She also has served as medical department chair for Bryan University in Columbia, where she spearheaded diversity and inclusion initiatives, taught multiple courses and managed more than 20 direct reports.

In her most recent role as director of engagement and coordinator of underrepresented minority student recruitment at the University of Missouri-Columbia College of Arts and Sciences, she worked to drive inclusion, diversity and equity strategies through best practices to ensure an inclusive culture. She implemented long-term strategic outreach efforts for the college, and collaborated with senior leaders and key stakeholders on state and community programming.

A 2019 recipient of the University G.O.L.D. award for service to the alumni community, Agwu is the vice president of the Mizzou Black Alumni Network. She is also membership co-chair of the Griffiths Leadership Society for Women. She was selected as a member of the new, chancellor-appointed Equity Resolution Hearing Panel and is a charter member of the central Missouri chapter of The Links, Incorporated, serving as the technology/PR/communication chair.

Agwu said she understands the needs of all students to address issues of marginalization.

“I want all Black students to know that their lives matter,” Agwu said. “I want all students of color, including Asian, Hispanic/Latinx and indigenous students, to know their cultures and unique experiences are significant. I want all women to know they have autonomy over their bodies. I want all LGBTQIA students to feel embraced and supported, and for students with disabilities, that they can access everything.”

School of Medicine announces academic appointments

The UMKC School of Medicine has announced four recent appointments to academic leadership positions: John Borsa, M.D., chair of the Department of Radiology; Adam Algren, M.D., chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine; Jennifer Elliott, M.D., interim chair of the Department of Anesthesiology; and Molly Uhlenhake, D.O., director of the Continuing Care Clinic clerkship.

Borsa adds the role of the school’s academic chair of radiology to his current position as department chair at Saint Luke’s Hospital of Kansas City. A board certified vascular interventional radiologist, he is a national expert in procedures related to percutaneous treatment of venous thromboembolic disease.

A fellow of the Society of Interventional Radiology, he also is a peer reviewed author and international lecturer in his field. He has been honored three times as teacher of the year by residents and five times as a distinguished faculty presenter.

Borsa completed medical school and an internship at the University of Manitoba, and his radiology residency at the Mayo Clinic. He also completed an interventional radiology fellowship at the University of Washington in Seattle before joining the staff of Saint Luke’s Hospital in 2011.

Adam Algren, M.D.Algren, a 2001 graduate of the UMKC School of Medicine, has served as interim chair of emergency medicine since January. He is also chair of the University Health Physicians Board of Directors.

A member of the UMKC departments of emergency medicine and pediatrics since 2007, Algren has served as the chair of the School of Medicine’s Council on Selection and on the Truman Medical Centers Board of Directors.

He completed his emergency medicine residency and served as chief resident at TMC. Fellowship trained in medical toxicology at the Emory University/CDC program, Algren also served as a clinical instructor in the Emory University emergency medicine department.

Elliott, JenniferIn addition to her new role as interim chair of anesthesiology, Elliott currently serves as medical director of the Pain Management Clinic at Saint Luke’s Hospital. A 1996 UMKC School of Medicine graduate, she has served for many years as a member of the residency education committee in the radiology department.

After completing her anesthesiology residency and a fellowship in pain management at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Elliott joined the staff at Saint Luke’s Hospital. She has been a member of the hospital’s Institutional Review Board, a member of the UMKC School of Medicine Physician Promotions Committee, and the physician chair of the Saint Luke’s Health System Opioid Stewardship Committee. She completed the UMKC Physician Leadership Development Program in 2018.

Elliott has also written numerous articles and chapters on topics in pain medicine and is the primary editor of an acute pain management handbook published in 2011.

Uhlenhake, MollyUhlenhake takes on her director’s role in the school’s Continuing Care Clinic, having previously served on the Council of Selections as vice chair and the scholarship selection committee as chair. She is currently working to develop a multidisciplinary LGBT+ clinic at TMC, where she directs primary care services.

A member of the School of Medicine docent team, Uhlenhake is also medical director of Refugee and Immigration services at the Kansas City Health Department and medical director of community outreach for TMC. She is a core faculty member for the Internal Medicine-Pediatrics residency program at TMC and for Teen Primary Care at Children’s Mercy Kansas City.

After graduating medical school at Des Moines University in Iowa, Uhlenhake completed her internal medicine-pediatrics residency the UMKC School of Medicine, where she also served chief resident. Before joining the staff at UMKC and TMC, she served at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and was the medical director of adolescent medicine at the High Street Clinic in Denver.

UMKC vision researchers repurpose technology to identify early symptoms of multiple sclerosis

Changes in vision detected by microperimetry can be related to early signs of multiple sclerosis.

Technology used in eye exams called microperimetry could prove to be an effective, non-invasive method of identifying early symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

An article recently published by researchers at the UMKC School of Medicine Vision Research Center reports the effective use of microperimetry during routine clinical assessments of multiple sclerosis patients. The article appeared in the research journal BioMed Central Ophthalmology.

Multiple sclerosis is a disease of the brain and spinal cord that affects nearly 400,000 people in the United States and more than 2 million throughout the world. There is no known cure for the potentially disabling disease, but treatment can help manage symptoms and speed up recovery from attacks.

Therefore, a non-invasive, clinically relevant and cost-effective method of identifying damage early would be invaluable to patients and health care providers. It would enable prompt therapy that may slow the progression of the disease and its ocular manifestations before irreversible damage occurs.

The testing method studied by the team of UMKC researchers, students and residents, microperimetry, measures light sensitivity of the center of a patient’s vision and can detect specific areas of decreased sensitivity. It typically takes less than half an hour.

Researchers from the school’s Vision Research Center have previously found the technology to be effective in diagnosing early stages of other diseases of the nervous system such as mild cognitive impairment in Alzheimer’s.

The vision research team of Landon J. Rohowetz, Qui Vu, Lilit Ablabutyan, Sean M. Gratton, Nancy Kunjukunju, Billi S. Wallace and Peter Koulen collaborated to determine subtle changes in visual function related to otherwise undetectable signs of multiple sclerosis. It is the first peer-reviewed study to assess the use of microperimetry, a straightforward and non-invasive vision test, as a tool to detect disease progression in early stage multiple sclerosis patients.

“The findings from this study provide a rationale for the use of microperimetry in the clinical assessment of patients with multiple sclerosis,” said Rohowetz, the study’s lead author. “By identifying visual dysfunction associated with multiple sclerosis, we hope physicians and researchers are able to use this technology to ultimately preserve and improve quality of life for patients with this often-disabling disease.”

More than 80 percent of the patients with multiple sclerosis show signs of impaired vision and 73 percent of MS patients experience visual impairment within the first 10 years of diagnosis, which is comparable to the prevalence of abnormal or impaired muscle function in the disease.

This initial study indicates that light sensitivity measured by microperimetry is lower among multiple sclerosis patients who have otherwise normal vision and no other history of issues with the optic nerve, which connects the eye to the brain. It also revealed a significant correlation between this impaired function and a reduced thickness of the retina in MS patients that is not seen in control subjects.

The report says further studies would look to monitor and evaluate ongoing changes in retina sensitivity and thickness as they correlate to a progression of multiple sclerosis. It will also broaden the approach to include MS patients who have a history of optic neuritis, where measurable damage to the optic nerve has already occurred.

GME office welcomes new assistant deans

Gregory Howell, M.D., and Brook Nelson, M.D., have been appointed associate deans in the School of Medicine’s Office of Graduate Medical Education.

School of Medicine Dean Mary Anne Jackson, M.D., and Associate Dean of Graduate Medical Education Sara Gardner, M.D., announced two additions to the schools’ Office of Graduate Medical Education. Gregory Howell, M.D., ’00, associate professor of medicine and program director for the critical care fellowship, and Brook Nelson, M.D., ’07, assistant professor of surgery and general surgery residency program director, have been appointed as assistant deans for Graduate Medical Education.

Howell and Nelson will work directly with Gardner interacting with and supporting the school’s Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) and non-ACGME programs, residents and fellows.

Each brings to their new positions extensive experience in graduate medical education. They will enhance the representation of our surgical and fellowship programs on the Graduate Medical Education Council. In addition, they will oversee the central line training course.

After graduation from medical school at UMKC, Howell completed his internal medicine and pulmonary/critical care training at UMKC.  Nelson also completed her general surgery residency at UMKC as well.

UMKC Health Equity Institute Works to Halt COVID-19 Pandemic in KC

Charlie Keegan, KSHB, talked to Jannette Berkley-Patton and volunteers at a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site

The UMKC Health Equity Institute facilitated volunteer efforts at drive-thru COVID-19 testing sites. The institute was formed four years ago to identify health care problems and offer solutions led by Jannette Berkley-Patton, Ph.D. Read Keegan’s story about the testing site and the Health Equity Institute.

Beams of Light to Treat Diabetes: UMKC Invention Gets Federal Funding Boost

The University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Pharmacy has been awarded a $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to continue work on an important advancement to help treat the tens of millions of people who have diabetes.

The lifetime burden of constantly checking blood sugar and injecting insulin is significant. UMKC research has developed a way of delivering insulin to diabetics that eliminates pumps and most injections.

“We’re aiming to improve the lives of diabetics all over the world,” said UMKC pharmacy professor Simon Friedman, the principal investigator on the grant.


Normally, diabetics must inject themselves with insulin numerous times per day to enable the body to absorb blood sugar. The amount of insulin needed and timing vary with what an individual eats and their activity level. With blood glucose continuously varying, the insulin requirement parallels the amount of glucose in the blood.

The only clinically-used method to permit continuously variable delivery of therapeutic proteins like insulin is a pump. But they do so at a high cost: a physical connection to the outside of the patient, where the drug reservoir resides, and the inside of the patient, where drug absorption will ultimately take place. This connection in insulin pumps is a cannula — or needle — which can be dislodged, crimped, snagged, infected and most importantly, rapidly gets biofouled from moisture after implantation. This leads to variable and unpredictable delivery.

For several years, Friedman and his lab associates have been developing a method in which a single injection of a material called a PAD (photo-activated depot) can take the place of multiple normal insulin injections and allow for minute-by-minute automatic updating of insulin release. The material is injected into the skin like insulin, but lies dormant until a beam of light stimulates release of insulin, in response to blood sugar information.

The new grant will help make the technology more reliable for someone to use and easier to manage.

“With the improvements, we anticipate creating a new and revolutionary approach to continuously variable protein delivery, one that minimizes invasiveness and maximizes the close matching of therapeutic with patient requirements,” Friedman said.

Karen Kover, associate professor of pediatrics at the UMKC School of Medicine and Children’s Mercy, has been an integral member of the research team for years, and Friedman is grateful for her collaboration.

Reviewers of the grant application praised the work, and Friedman, who has won previous NIH funding, said this was his highest rated grant award.

“We are grateful for the enthusiastic response from the NIH study section, given the very competitive nature of funding at this time during the pandemic,” said UMKC Vice Chancellor for Research Chris Liu.

The project is supported by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases at the NIH.

In people with type 1 diabetes, the pancreas no longer makes insulin. Patients need insulin to process sugar from meals.

People with type 2 diabetes make insulin, but their bodies don’t respond well to it. At first the pancreas produces extra insulin to make up for it. But over time it isn’t able to keep up and can’t make enough insulin to keep blood sugar at normal levels.

About 34.2 million children and adults in the U.S. — 10.5% of the population — have diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 25 percent use insulin shots. About 86 million people ages 20 and older in the U.S. have prediabetes.

Complications from diabetes include heart disease and stroke, high blood pressure, blindness, kidney disease, nervous system damage and amputation.

People with diabetes risk more serious complications from COVID-19 than others who do not have the disease.

“Through research at UMKC, we strive to improve the health of not just our community but our entire population,” said Chancellor Mauli Agrawal. “We are proud of Dr. Friedman and his team’s innovation, which could significantly benefit people around the world.”