Growing our own research talent

USF Health prepares next generation of clinical and translational investigators

Dr. Jamie Winderbaum Fernandez, a psychiatrist, will investigate cellular mechanisms of Alzheimer’s disease with the aim of developing treatments to help rid the brain of memory-robbing toxins. Dr. Celso Silva, an obstetrician-gynecologist, wants to know whether a non-invasive test to measure the length of chromosomes tips could predict the success of in vitro fertilization among women experiencing infertility. Dr. Xiaohong Zhang, a molecular biologist, hopes to pinpoint an enzyme inhibitor that could help ovarian cancer patients overcome resistance to chemotherapy.

While their scholarly interests and backgrounds are diverse, the three newest members of USF Health’s K-30 Scholars in Patient-Oriented Research Program (K30 Scholars Program) are all excited about the prospect of learning new skills to help advance their research careers.

K30 Scholarship Boost from Dean

They are recipients of the first K30 Program Dean’s Faculty Scholar Awards in Clinical and Translational Research to support junior faculty members participating in the two-year research career development program. Stephen Klasko, MD, MBA, CEO for USF Health and dean of the College of Medicine, and Patricia Emmanuel, MD, Associate Dean for Clinical Research, have designated $60,000 for each of the three scholars to help subsidize departmental salaries to the faculty members while they dedicate three-quarters of their time to research.

“We are committed to growing our own talented clinical and translational investigators — faculty who are passionate about tackling intellectual challenges and creating new knowledge that will lead to better products and therapies for patients,” said Ken Zuckerman, MD, co-director of the K30 Scholars Program for USF Health. “This program is considered so crucial to the future of USF Health research efforts that Drs. Klasko, (Phil) Marty and Emmanuel have extended the commitment to provide similar salary support for up to four faculty members a year, on a competitive basis.”

Growing Our Own

The K30 Scholars Program began at USF Health in 2005 with the support of a National Institutes of Health Clinical Research Curriculum Award. It is preparing the next generation of clinical researchers by arming them with critical skills needed to accelerate medical discoveries to improve health. When the new class begins this July, 22 junior faculty and senior subspecialty fellows will have been enrolled in the highly competitive program, which leads to a Master’s of Science in Medical Sciences degree with a concentration in clinical and translational research. Drs. Fernandez, Silva and Zhang will join a diverse contingent of scholars from interdisciplinary oncology, obstetrics and gynecology, pathology, pediatrics, physical therapy, psychiatry, nursing and surgery.

The K30 scholars complete a rigorous curriculum that includes courses in ethical and regulatory aspects of clinical research, cultural and diversity issues, epidemiology, biostatistics, and science communication. They learn the nuts and bolts of how to do competitive research, something not typically taught during medical school or residency training. The scholars prepare and critique grant applications and design, conduct and analyze clinical trials and translational studies. They hear from faculty at different stages of their academic research careers and learn practical strategies to help them map out successful careers in patient-oriented research.

“One of the things we did not anticipate and of which we are most proud,” Dr. Zuckerman said, “is how easily these scholars from such diverse areas of interest and expertise have interacted and contributed to each others’ research and career development – essential skills for becoming critical members of interdisciplinary research teams that will drive scientific discovery in the 21st century.”

Jumpstarting Research Careers

K30 Scholars Program graduate Brian Giunta, MD, MS

The intense training pays off. Brian Giunta, MD, MS, a graduate of the inaugural class of K30 scholars, was awarded a prestigious four-year $629,500 Mentored Clinical Scientist Development Award from NIH even before completing the program last year. Dr. Giunta continues to work with his mentor USF neuroscientist Jun Tan, MD, PhD, and colleagues out of the neuroimmunology laboratories in the Department of Psychiatry. Using a mouse-model for HIV-induced Alzheimer’s disease, they are investigating whether flavonoids — natural substances found in citrus, dark berries, green tea and red wine — may protect the brain against dementia. Dr. Giunta has been promoted from instructor to assistant professor and is working toward a PhD degree. The talented young translational scientist has recently published two peer-reviewed papers directly related to his grant as lead author, and others are in the pipeline.

“I never would have been able to jumpstart my research career without having a portion of my time blocked out to participate in the K30 Scholars Program,” Dr. Giunta said.

Information about the three inaugural K30 Scholar Program scholarship recipients follows:

Jamie Winderbaum Fernandez, MD

Dr. Fernandez is an instructor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine and attending physician at Tampa General Hospital. While a medical student at Cornell University, she won a spot in the highly selective Howard Hughes Medical Institute-National Institutes of Health Research Scholars (Cloister) Program. She spent two years at the NIH campus in Bethesda, MD, conducting mentored research in lipid signaling and defects in cellular trafficking associated with Lowe syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that causes physical and mental disabilities and medical problems.

Dr. Fernandez completed a residency in adult psychiatry at Stanford University before joining USF this year. She is interested in geriatric psychiatry and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. For her K30 research project she plans to examine the role of amyloid precursor protein (APP) in the accumulation and clearance of Alzheimer’s plaques in the brain.

“There seems to be a huge push now for neuroscience research. It’s an area of medicine that for years remained largely unstudied,” Dr. Fernandez said. “With recent advances in laboratory techniques, animal models, vaccine-mediated approaches and neuroimaging, there is hope that we’ll be able to broaden our understanding of the brain and brain disease.”

“For Alzheimer’s disease, studies are suggesting that catching the disease early, even before symptoms are apparent, will be important for effective treatment… otherwise, it’s like trying to treat diabetes after medical complications have already occurred.”

Dr. Fernandez’s K30 Scholar mentor will be Jun Tan, MD, PhD, the Silver Endowed Chair in Developmental Neurobiology at USF Health.

Celso Silva, MD

Dr. Silva is an assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Division of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility. He earned his MD degree in Brazil and completed a residency in obstetrics and gynecology at Brown University and a fellowship in reproductive endocrinology and infertility at the University of Pennsylvania. His postgraduate research in reproductive medicine was supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Research Training Program.

From the laboratory to the clinic, Dr. Silva focuses on the issue of aging and fertility – specifically the ability of stem cells to generate the oocytes (eggs) that decrease dramatically in numbers and/or quality among older women. For his K30 research project, he plans to study the effectiveness of several ways –including testing blood and the fluid inside ovarian follicles – to measure the protective tips on the ends of chromosomes known as telomeres. Shortened telomeres have been implicated in age-related decline in the developmental potential of eggs. Working with the USF IVF research team, he hopes to validate a diagnostic test to measure telomeres, and determine whether telomere length actually predicts which women are more likely to conceive an IVF baby before patients commit to the demanding treatment regimen.

The best translational research is a two-way street, not just a bench-to-bedside enterprise, Dr. Silva said. “It goes beyond applying knowledge gained from basic science studies to the care of patients. Before you can develop viable diagnostic tools and treatments, you need to bring observations and insights from day-to-day clinical experiences back to the laboratory to re-evaluate and enhance your original findings,” he said.

“This approach requires a multidisciplinary team where there is constant dialogue between clinicians and basic scientists.”

Dr. Silva appreciates having more time to devote to research. “For clinicians in academic medicine and teaching hospitals, the pressures to see more patients and educate students and residents can be tremendous,” he said. “To promote the development of translational research you really need to be somewhat shielded from other activities… The K30 program accommodates that.”

Dr. Silva’s K-30 mentor will be David Keefe, MD, chair of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Xiaohong (Mary) Zhang, PhD

Dr. Zhang is an assistant professor in the Department of Pathology and Cell Biology. She holds a PhD in molecular biology from the University of Texas, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in molecular oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center.

Dr. Zhang is looking forward to interacting with other K30 scholars who bring different perspectives to the table.

“Good research requires thinking outside the box, and that means it’s important to communicate and collaborate with researchers outside your field,” she said. “I strongly believe the K30 Scholars Program will be a great opportunity to enhance my career as an ovarian cancer researcher. I want to bridge my basic science knowledge about histone deacetylases to help clinicians restore chemotherapy sensitivity in patients with ovarian cancer.”

Dr. Zhang’s K-30 mentors will be Santo Nicosia, MD, chair of Pathology and Cell Biology, and Jonathan Lancaster, MD, PhD, associate professor of Oncologic Sciences and director of the Center for Women’s Oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center.

For more information on the K30 Scholars in Patient Oriented Research Program, contact Sandy Anderson at sanders2@health.usf.edu, or visit http://health.usf.edu/research/k30/

- Story by Anne DeLotto Baier, USF Health Communications
- Photos by Eric Younghans and Klaus Herdocia, USF Health Communications

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