November 2016 Archives

Kovler Diabetes Center marks a decade of patient care and research

Kovler MODI

Kovler Diabetes Center welcomed more than 120 patients and family members at this year's Monogenic Diabetes Family Forum, June 23-25

This year, Kovler Diabetes Center is celebrating its 10th anniversary, capping a decade of cutting-edge patient care and research notable for its leading role in identifying new genes for diabetes and using genetic information to drive clinical decision making. 

The celebration of this milestone will look ahead to the next 10 years, building on a long tradition of accomplishments in diabetes research at the University of Chicago based on scientific advances that impact patient care. These include the discovery of the pathways of insulin biosynthesis and secretion by Donald Steiner, Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and the demonstration by Arthur Rubenstein, Professor of Medicine, that the measurement of byproducts of the insulin secretory pathway (proinsulin, C-peptide and other peptides) provides important insights into the health of the pancreatic beta cell and alterations in disease. Other advances include the development of methods to accurately measure pancreatic beta cell function in humans and the identification of diabetes susceptibility genes led by Graeme Bell, Professor of Medicine.

The establishment of the Kovler Diabetes Center by a transformative gift from Jonathan Kovler and the Kovler Family Foundation has allowed us, under the leadership of Lou Philipson, Professor of Medicine, to organize diabetes care more comprehensively into a center that includes endocrinology and various specialties essential for optimal diabetes care, including podiatry, cardiology, ophthalmology, nephrology, psychology and neurology. The gift from the Kovler family gave the new center an identity and a space dedicated to all aspects of diabetes care. We are deeply grateful to Jonathan Kovler for his generosity and also to his wife, Sally, whose leadership of the Kovler Diabetes Center Board has raised funds to support the ongoing needs of the Center.

Unfortunately, the epidemic of diabetes in our country continues unabated. At any given time, almost 30 percent of UCMC inpatients have some form of diabetes, and the economic and public health costs to our community are enormous. Cutting-edge research and innovative treatment have never been more important.  Congratulations to Lou Philipson and the physicians and staff who work in the Kovler Diabetes Center for a very productive first 10 years.  We are confident that the next 10 years will be equally successful.


Faculty and students recognized

I am delighted to share some of the recent honors and recognitions received by members of our faculty.

Michael Rust, Assistant Professor of Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology, is one of 84 Faculty Scholars named by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), the Simons Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. These organizations have joined forces to support promising early-career scientists who have the potential to perform transformative research. Mike, who studies how and why biological organisms keep time using circadian clocks, was chosen from a field of 1,400 applicants. The five-year grant will allow him to pursue exciting new lines of research.

Huntington Willard, Professor of Human Genetics and president and director of the Marine Biological Laboratory, was elected to the National Academy of Medicine, one of the highest honors in the medical and health fields. The award recognizes individuals, selected by their peers, who have demonstrated outstanding professional achievements and commitment to service. Hunt’s discoveries have had a direct impact on human health by advancing understanding of the biology of gene expression.

Neil Shubin, Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy, received the Addison Emery Verrill Medal from the Yale Peabody Museum. The Verrill Medal was created in 1959 to honor “signal practitioners in the arts of natural history and natural sciences.” There have been only 18 recipients since the award’s inception. Neil, who is headed to Antarctica next month in search of fossils, was selected for his research on the evolution of new organs, especially limbs.

Mark Siegler, Professor of Medicine and Surgery,  received the 2016 Harvey M. Meyerhoff Leadership in Bioethics Award from the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. Mark was selected for the 2016 award for his extensive scholarly research and his creation and leadership of the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics, which has trained more than 400 clinical fellows during the past 35 years. The Berman Institute said that the MacLean Center’s training programs have had “a greater impact than any other clinical ethics training program in the world.”

I invite you to read an important perspective by one of our colleagues on data sharing and the pivotal role it will play in precision oncology. Robert Grossman, Professor of Medicine, is first author of an article, “Toward a Shared Vision for Cancer Genomic Data,” published September 22 in the New England Journal of Medicine. Bob is the principal investigator for the Genomic Data Commons, the NCI-funded cancer-knowledge platform to enable broad collaboration among researchers.

Finally, two of our Pritzker students recently were named recipients of the Physicians of Tomorrow Chicago-Area scholarship.  The American Medical Association created the Physicians of Tomorrow Awards to honor the academic, personal and professional accomplishments of a select group of students nationwide. Fourth-year students Sean Gaffney and Shilpa Vasishta both have shown an outstanding commitment to caring for the underserved and have made many contributions to our South Side and Pritzker communities.

Resource Groups forming on campus

Last month, the University of Chicago Medical Center, the Biological Sciences Division and the Pritzker School of Medicine jointly launched a process to support the formation of Resource Groups to foster diversity, inclusion and peer support by connecting like-minded people. Sponsored by the Diversity and Inclusion Steering Committee, the voluntary groups are open to all members of our community, including faculty, staff, residents and students. A group dedicated to sexual orientation and gender identity has already formed and was co-sponsor of a recent lecture on campus by Dr. Harvey Makadon on improving health care and outcomes for the LGBTQ community.

Promoting diversity and inclusion is an institutional imperative and these resource groups have my strongest support. I encourage you to consider forming or becoming involved with a group. To learn more, please visit the Resource Group pages at and, or attend the information session on Wednesday, Nov. 16 from 2 to 3 p.m. in J-103.

Recruitment to the BSD

Our Division is fortunate to attract outstanding basic and translational researchers, physician scientists, and clinicians from preeminent institutions across the country. I would like to highlight three recent recruits — renowned in their fields — who have joined us since July 1 as professors.

Zeray Alemseged is a leading evolutionary paleontologist who studies the evolutionary history of the earliest human ancestors, and how these processes were shaped by environmental and ecological factors. In 2006, he reported finding the 3.3 million-year-old bones of a 3-year-old child from the species Australopithecus afarensis in the Ethiopian desert, the earliest skeleton of a child ever found. He joins us from the California Academy of Sciences, where he was a research associate in anthropology. The recruitment of Professor Alemseged underscores our ongoing commitment to eminence in our paleontology program recognized as one of the leading, if not the leading, program in the world. 

Transplant surgeon John Fung was recruited to advance our programs in solid organ transplantation. John is the inaugural director of the new University of Chicago Medicine Transplantation Institute and chief of the Section of Transplant Surgery. This is a homecoming for John, who received both his MD and PhD (in immunology) here, and I am delighted he has rejoined us. Previously, John was at the Cleveland Clinic, where he served as director of its Health System Center, overseeing transplant services in four states.

Jennifer Moriatis Wolf, is a surgeon with expertise in orthopaedic hand, wrist and elbow care, and an active researcher, educator and mentor.  She comes to us from the University of Connecticut. Jennifer has been awarded the prestigious Bunnell Fellowship from the American Society for Surgery of the Hand, as well as the American-British-Canadian Traveling Fellowship from the American Orthopaedic Association. She is the deputy editor-in-chief of the Journal of Hand Surgery.

Please join me in welcoming them and the rest of our new colleagues.

From bench to business


From left: John Colson, Cathryn Nagler, and Jeff Hubbell

The University has a strong interest in promoting entrepreneurial efforts through its Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. A startup company launched by Cathryn Nagler, Professor of Pathology, provides an example of the venture creation resources available to faculty, staff and students who want to translate research into commercial application. The company, ClostraBio, is developing therapeutics based on discoveries made at the University of Chicago inspired by research into the microbiome that aim to prevent or treat food allergies.  Cathryn and colleague Jeffrey Hubbell, Professor in the Institute for Molecular Engineering, received guidance and business expertise in forming their company from the Polsky Center, and in less than a year, ClostraBio incorporated, received funding and is getting ready for pre-clinical trials.

Exciting advances in recreating the sense of touch

Bensmaia piano

In recent weeks, neuroscientist Sliman Bensmaia, Associate Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy, has been involved with two major advances in restoring the sense of touch for paralyzed and amputee patients. First, he worked with a team of researchers from the University of Pittsburgh to develop a brain computer interface that was surgically implanted in a man who is paralyzed from the chest down. The interface is connected to a robotic arm that transmits sensory feedback through electrodes implanted in areas of the brain responsible for hand movement and touch.

The results of that work, published in Science Translational Medicine (STM) on October 13, show how the patient is now able to distinguish between touches on individual fingers and the palm of the robotic arm with input from the system. The story received international media attention when the patient shook hands with President Obama at a conference using the robotic arm.

Sliman also worked with a separate team from Case Western Reserve University on a similar project with two men who each lost an arm after traumatic injuries. In this study, published in STM on October 26, both subjects were implanted with neural interfaces, devices embedded with electrodes that were attached to the median, ulnar and radial nerves of the arm. Those are the same nerves that would carry signals from the hand were it still intact. The men were able to distinguish variations of intensity through the devices, and reported that they felt like natural sensations of touch.

Both studies incorporate years of research by Bensmaia describing how the nervous system interprets sensory feedback as we touch or grasp objects, move our limbs and run our fingers along textured surfaces. In a series of experiments with monkeys, whose sensory systems closely resemble those of humans, he has identified patterns of neural activity that occur naturally as the animals manipulate objects, and successfully recreated those patterns by directly stimulating the nervous system with electrical signals. His work provided a blueprint for both teams to recreate the sense of touch using a “biomimetic” approach that approximates the natural, intact nervous system.

Robotic limbs and brain computer interfaces sound like science fiction, and I am excited that the University of Chicago is part of making these advances a reality. This research has the potential for profound impact on improving the lives of patients who have suffered catastrophic injuries.


Grants awarded for children’s health

Comer ED

Our commitment to the community includes caring for its more vulnerable members, including children. This is important work, and I’m pleased that two large federal grants will advance faculty members’ efforts to improve the lives of children and their families.

A five-year, $2 million federal grant from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration supports a new program to provide screening and mental health care for children and families who have been affected by violence in the community. Under the program, Comer Children’s will screen ED and PICU patients for trauma exposure, regardless of whether they're being treated for violent injuries. Patients and families will be offered support, counseling and intervention.

Bradley Stolbach, Associate Professor of Pediatrics, is the PI. You may read more about the University of Chicago Medicine REACT (Recovery and Empowerment After Community Trauma) program and Dr. Stolbach’s work here.

The National Institutes of Health is launching a seven-year initiative called Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO). ECHO will follow more than 50,000 children nationwide to study how exposure to a range of environmental factors in early development influences the health of children and adolescents. Researchers at the University of Chicago will receive approximately $5 million during the first two years.

Neonatologist Erika Claud, Associate Professor of Pediatrics, will head one of the ECHO pediatric cohorts, which includes NorthShore University Health Services and academic medical centers in Boston, San Diego and Tampa. Her team will study how the microbiome affects neurodevelopment of preterm infants from birth to school readiness. Kate Keenan, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience, will work with colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh to understand how exposure to environmental stress prior to conception might alter the mother’s capacity to regulate stress during pregnancy, leading to deficits in the neurodevelopment of her children.

Patient quality and safety


Our 10th “A” rating from The Leapfrog Group reflects our broad commitment to providing safe patient care, and could not have been achieved without the contributions of faculty and staff throughout the organization. The University of Chicago Medicine is one of only 72 U.S. hospitals to have received an “A” ranking in every report since the semi-annual survey began. This is a remarkable achievement, and I thank you all for your hard work, skill and dedication to quality, safe care.