Two Physician-Scientists' Seminal Research Earns Election to Association of American Physicians

Two Physician-Scientists' Seminal Research Earns Election to Association of American Physicians

Mar 17, 2011 11:23 AM

(SALT LAKE CITY)—E. Dale Abel, M.D., Ph.D., and Dean Y. Li, M.D., Ph.D., have dedicated their careers at the University of Utah School of Medicine to understanding the molecular mechanisms that lead to obesity- and diabetes-related heart dysfunction and vascular diseases that affect millions of people.
For their widely recognized research contributions, achieved in part through their work in the University of Utah’s Molecular Medicine Program and its predecessor Program in Human Molecular Genetics and Biology (HMBG), the two physician-scientists have met the rigorous standards for a rare honor – election to the Association of American Physicians (AAP). Abel and Li will be installed in the AAP, a 125-year-old organization dedicated to the advancement of the science and practice of medicine, at the group’s annual meeting in April.

Abel, who’s chief of the Division of Endocrinology, professor of biochemistry, human genetics, and internal medicine, and an investigator in the Molecular Medicine Program, joined the School of Medicine in 2000. His groundbreaking research has shed light on molecular mechanisms that lead to diabetes- and obesity-related heart dysfunction and insulin resistance. In recent work he has shown the impact of oxidative stress on mitochondrial function in obesity and diabetes. Oxidative stress is a natural result of the body’s use of oxygen, but it can cause cellular damage through rogue molecules called free radicals. Mitochondria are the cellular “factories” that produce ATP, the main source of energy for cells. Abel is studying the role of mitochondria dysfunction in insulin resistance, a key feature of some types of diabetes.

Alan Chait, M.B., M.D, head of the Division of Metabolism, Endocrinology, and Nutrition at the University of Washington School of Medicine, nominated Abel for AAP membership. “Dr. Abel has made seminal contributions to the area of myocardial metabolism, and is very worthy of being elected to the AAP,” Chait said in an e-mail. “He is exactly the type of candidate who should be nominated, both for his scientific achievements and his leadership role at the University of Utah and in various organizations.”

Along with leading the U of U Division of Endocrinology, Abel oversees the Metabolism Interest Group, an interdisciplinary consortium of 20 U of U investigators, serves on the Council of the American Society of Clinical Investigation, and is president of the Society for Heart and Vascular Metabolism, among other activities.   

Li, a cardiologist who is a professor of internal medicine, oncological sciences, and human genetics, HA and Edna Benning Presidential Endowed Professor in Medicine, and director of the University of Utah Molecular Medicine and MD/PhD programs, joined the School of Medicine in 1995. Before becoming director of the Molecular Medicine Program, he was an investigator with its forerunner, the Program in Human Molecular Biology and Genetics Program. Li has produced seminal breakthroughs in understanding the biology of vascular diseases, including supravalvular aortic stenosis (narrowing of the aorta), cerebral cavernous malformations (abnormal vessels in the brain that tend to leak), and HHT, a hereditary disorder in which blood vessels are weakened and prone to leaking. He recently has identified a new molecular mechanism for stabilizing blood vessels that are leaky because of inflammatory damage. This may have important therapeutic implications for sepsis (blood poisoning), severe influenza, and other conditions in which the vessels are acutely impaired.

Daniel Kelly, M.D., scientific director of the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, Orlando, Fla., seconded Li’s nomination for AAP membership by Tony Muslin, M.D., of Washington University in St Louis. Kelly cited the creativity in Li’s research. “His work has led to a series of breakthroughs in our understanding of vascular disease and shows great promise for making a major impact on the future care of patients with complex heart and vascular diseases,” Kelly said via e-mail.

The AAP has high standards for membership based on a thorough evaluation of a candidate’s contributions to academic medicine and biomedical research. The process includes a critical review of original research contributions that have a high impact on new medical knowledge, seminal studies published in peer-reviewed journals, peer-reviewed grant funding, leadership positions, and professional honors. Candidates are nominated and seconded by two active AAP members and then voted on by the entire 1,300-plus active members of the organization.

One of the first U of U School of Medicine faculty members elected to the AAP was the internationally renowned hematologist Maxwell M. Wintrobe, M.D. With Li and Abel, the number of active AAP members at the U of U totals 11, with a number of others elected in the past. Four of those active members have come through the Program in Human Molecular Biology and Genetics and Molecular Medicine Program; two other former U faculty and AAP members also rose through those programs.    

Established in 1990, HMBG was set up to foster the careers of promising young non physician- researchers investigating human biology and disease. The program originally emphasized multidisciplinary research in “classical” basic science, according to Guy A. Zimmerman, M.D., professor and associate chair for research in internal medicine and the director of HMBG from 1999-2009. In 1999, however, HMBG began focusing on physician-investigators, with an emphasis on diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, among other areas. By 2005, investigators with the program had brought in more than $70 million in extramural research funds. In 2009, the Molecular Medicine Program, which Li now heads, evolved from HMBG.

Both Abel and Li were investigators with HMBG as they began their careers at the U School of Medicine. As M.D./Ph.D.s, they were ideally suited to both the basic science and physician research models, particularly with the focus on diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, according to Zimmerman, who’s also one of the U of U’s active AAP members.

“Drs. Li and Abel are excellent examples of the creative, talented physician-scientists who have positioned the University of Utah at the forefront of medical research since the establishment of the School of Medicine, and whom we depend on for future discoveries,” Zimmerman said. “The results of their work, and that of other investigators, are advancing clinical medicine in ways that will help many people.”

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