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UAB Medicine offers head and neck cancer support group

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Members of the Head and Neck Oncology Program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham will offer several opportunities for head and neck cancer patients, survivors and family members to discuss problems for those affected.

“Support groups are so important for cancer patients because the physicians and caregivers can provide only a fraction of the support the patient needs,” said Allison Seamon, PA-C and lead advanced practice provider for the Department of Otolaryngology. “Having a network of people who either went through the same thing or are facing a similar diagnosis is a powerful motivator in the fight against cancer.”

Seamon says new cancer patients are often overwhelmed with lots of information and appointments in addition to a whirlwind of emotions.

“Emotional and financial support is really lacking for this particular group of cancer patients,” she said. “We are trying to provide a service that brings support to our patients and awareness to the general population.”

Head and neck cancers account for approximately 4 percent of all cancers in the United States. These cancers are more than twice as common among men as they are among women. Head and neck cancers are also diagnosed more often among people older than age 50 than they are among younger people.

Specialists from the Department of Otolaryngology, Department of Oral and Maxillofacial SurgeryDivision of Radiation Oncology, and Division of Hematology and Oncology will be on hand to provide answers and support. Each support group meeting will focus on a different topic of discussion provided by UAB experts.

The event is held the third Thursday of every other month at 4 p.m. at 1824 Sixth Ave. South in Room NP2532. Free valet parking for attendees is available at the Hazelrig-Salter Radiation Oncology Center at 1700 Sixth Ave. S. The first meeting of the year is Thursday, Jan. 17. No RSVP is required.

Obesity surgery leads to emergence of new microbial strains in the human fecal community

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Casey Morrow, Ph.D., and Ranjit Kumar, Ph.D.

Using a unique bioinformatics technique developed at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, UAB researchers have detected the emergence of new strains of microbes in the human fecal microbiota after obesity surgery. These new strains emerged after surgical disruption of the stomach and upper small intestine. In contrast, the researchers found that strains of the human gut fecal microbiota resembled those found pre-surgery following surgery in the colon, which is the lower part of the gastrointestinal, or GI, tract.

The UAB researchers studied patients undergoing two types of obesity surgery — Roux-en-Y gastric bypass and sleeve gastrectomy. In sleeve gastrectomy, the size of the stomach is reduced. Roux-en-Y gastric bypass also reduces the size of the stomach that receives food, but it additionally creates a surgical bypass of the rest of the stomach and the first part of the small intestine.

“Our results show that, when you change the upper GI tract with obesity surgery, you also change the gut environment, resulting in the emergence of new strains of microbes,” said Casey Morrow, Ph.D., leader of the research team and professor emeritus in UAB’s Department of Cell, Developmental and Integrative Biology. “In the microbial competition for nutrients and space in the GI tract, the winners are new strains that are more competitive in the new GI tract environment.”

The ability of the informatics technique to discriminate among individual strains of the same species advances analysis of the human gut microbiota and how surgery may alter the microbial community. The human microbiota largely consists of 500 to 1,000 bacterial species that have a mainly beneficial influence on human health, including modulation of the immune system and influences on host metabolism and organ development. Previous studies of the microbiota have been able to determine changes in the relative abundance of various species after obesity surgery, but they could not discern whether this could be due to the replacement of one strain of a particular species by another strain of that same species.

In 2017, the UAB researchers had used their technique — called window-based similarity single-nucleotide-variant, or WSS — to show the first direct demonstration that fecal donor microbes remained in recipients for months or years after fecal transplants to treat patients with recurrent Clostridium difficile infections.

Surgeons: Jayleen Grams, M.D., and Daniel Chu, M.D.

For the report published in the Human Microbiome Journal in December, Morrow and colleagues analyzed fecal samples taken from patients before and one to two years after obesity surgery. The study included 18 patients undergoing Roux-en-Y gastric bypass and six patients undergoing sleeve gastrectomy.

When the pre- and post-fecal samples for the two groups of obesity surgery patients were compared, only 65 percent of the Roux-en-Y WSS scores and 75 percent of the sleeve gastrectomy WSS scores were above the boundary cutoff that identifies related pairs. This meant that, for 35 percent of the Roux-en-Y microbiota pairs and 25 percent of the sleeve gastrectomy pairs, changes from one microbial strain of a bacterial species to another strain had occurred, and in some cases these changes in the microbial community persisted one to two years after the operations. Multiple changes in microbe strains of various bacterial species were identified in most, but not all, of the obesity surgery patients.

In contrast, for five surgery patients who lost segments of the sigmoid colon, which is near the end of the GI tract, 97 percent of the WSS scores comparing pre- and post-surgery samples were above the cutoff, indicating stable strains over time, despite the operations. Three of those patients showed a single new microbe strain in a particular bacterial species. The other two had no new strains. This 97 percent is similar to the stability of gut microbiota seen over one or two years in people who have not had an operation.

“Our study describes, for the first time, the emergence of new microbe strains in the fecal community following alteration of the upper gastrointestinal tract,” Morrow said. “Most probably, the origins of the new strains in the fecal community are the tissue-associated microbe communities of the small intestine. Since the surgery resulted in a permanent physiological alteration, the new microbe strains reflect the response to these environmental changes in the GI tract.”

“In a broader implication,” Morrow said, “the realization that humans can harbor multiple strains of the same microbes provides us with a new appreciation for the complexity of the human GI microbe community. It reinforces the importance of our ongoing studies to examine the impact that other microbiome disrupting treatments, such as antibiotics and cancer chemotherapy, have on the structure of the GI tract microbe community.”

Besides Morrow, authors of the study “New microbe genomic variants in patients fecal community following surgical disruption of the upper human gastrointestinal tract” are Ranjit Kumar, Ph.D., UAB Center for Clinical and Translational Science Informatics Institute; Jayleen Grams, Daniel I. Chu and Richard Stahl, UAB Department of Surgery; Kelly Goldsmith, Michael Crowley and David K. Crossman, UAB Department of Genetics and Heflin Center for Genomic Sciences; Peter Eipers, UAB Department of Cell, Developmental and Integrative Biology; and Elliot J. Lefkowitz, UAB Department of Microbiology. All the departments are in the UAB School of Medicine.

Support for the UAB Microbiome Resource came through the UAB School of Medicine, O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB, the UAB Center for Clinical and Translational Science, the UAB University Wide Institutional Core, the Heflin Center for Genomic Sciences, and the UAB Microbiome Center. Support also came from a 2016 Central Surgical Association Foundation Enrichment Award.

O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB presents ArtBLINK Gala 2019

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Artists will create spectacular works of art in the blink of an eye during the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center’s 34th annual ArtBLINK Gala at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 2, in The Kirklin Clinic of UAB Hospital, located at 2000 Sixth Ave. South.

As one of Birmingham’s premier events, the elegant evening features local artists who create masterpieces in 90 minutes, a silent auction, artists gallery, cocktail dinner provided by IZ Catering, and a night of dancing with live music from The Schmohawks. Funds from the Gala go toward the Cancer Center’s Fund for Excellence, which supports high-priority research efforts including launching young investigators in cancer research or recruiting new faculty.

Often referred to as Alabama’s cancer center, the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB is a national leader in research and treatment. Its comprehensive designation, awarded by the National Cancer Institute, is held by only 49 institutions in the country. UAB’s cancer center was one of the first eight comprehensive cancer centers in the United States and has held this designation continuously for the past 45 years.

“Philanthropic support from the community through our ArtBLINK Gala provides us with the critical seed money to investigate drugs and develop treatments that we can quickly and safely move to our patients,” said Michael Birrer, M.D., Ph.D., director of the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center. “We have witnessed a virtual explosion in our knowledge of cancer at its molecular and genomic levels, and philanthropic giving also provides us the flexible funds that allow us the ability to address the greatest research needs as they are presented.”

Local artists include Ginnard Archibald and Joseph Longoria, Ahmad Austin, Melissa Payne Baker, Pam Benoit, Sally Waldrup Boyd, Gary Chapman, Joan Curtis, Vicki Denaburg, Lynthia Edwards, Thomas Findlay, Gina Hurry, Carrie Pittman, Linda Ellen Price, Michael Swann, Sherri Van Pelt, Paul Ware, Sarah Soule Webb, Robine Wright and Natalie Russo Zoghby.

Admission is $150 per person. For more information, visit www.artblink.org. Purchase tickets online, or call 205-934-1603. Dress is black-tie-optional. Valet service and deck parking are available for guests.

Presenting partners include AutoTec, O’Neal Industries, Protective Life Corporation and Regions Bank.

UAB earns Women’s Choice Award “Best Hospital” designation for five areas

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The University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital has received the 2019 America’s Best Hospitals designation from Women’s Choice Award for the practice areas of obstetricsbariatric surgeryheart care and cancer care and as a best breast center practice.

These areas were awarded based on the hospital’s outstanding achievement in clinical excellence and patient experience and satisfaction. By appearing on the Best Hospitals list, these UAB clinical areas are considered to represent the top 10 percent of hospital practices across the country.

The Women’s Choice Award is an independent referral source for women, aiming to empower women to make better health care choices.

In determining its Best Hospitals list, Women’s Choice Award uses the most recent publicly available information from The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, as well as accreditation information and surveys from thousands of women to determine which measures are most important to them.

Dhall named division director of pediatric Hematology-Oncology and Blood Marrow Transplantation program

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Girish Dhall, M.D., has been named as division director for the Hematology-Oncology and Blood Marrow Transplantation program in the University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Pediatrics and Children’s of Alabama. Dhall is currently an associate professor of pediatrics and director of the Neuro-oncology Program at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles and will join the department at the end of May 2019.

Dhall has been at CHLA and on faculty at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California since 2007, when he completed his fellowship in pediatric neuro-oncology. His clinical interests include caring for children and young adults with primary brain and spinal cord injuries. He is dedicated to improving the survival rate of young children with brain tumors without the use of high levels of radiation therapy.

“We look forward to Dr. Dhall building on the strong leadership that has preceded him in the division, and we know that under his direction, the Alabama Center for Childhood Cancer and Blood Disorders will continue to excel in patient care, research and teaching in the years to come,” said Mitch Cohen, M.D., chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the UAB School of Medicine and physician-in-chief of Children’s. “I believe that Dr. Dhall’s leadership of the talented faculty and staff in the Alabama Center for Childhood Cancer and Blood Disorders, as well as the ongoing partnership with the Institute for Cancer Outcomes and Survivorship and the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer at UAB, will elevate the stature and reach of our pediatric cancer programs and provide great benefit for the children of Alabama, the region and beyond,” Cohen said.

Dhall completed his fellowship in pediatric hematology-oncology at New York University Medical Center, residency in pediatrics at New York Medical College, Valhalla, New York, and medical school at Grant Medical College, Mumbai, India. He is a member of multiple professional societies including Histiocyte Society, American Society of Pediatric Hematology-Oncology, Fellow of American Academy of Pediatrics, Society for Neuro-oncology, American Society of Clinical Oncology, International Society of Pediatric Oncology and the Society for Pediatric Research.

He has successfully led many local and multi-institutional clinical trials and has been involved in many leadership roles on various national committees, including the chairmanship of the Young Investigator’s Committee in Children’s Oncology Group. He has mentored many students, residents, fellows, and junior faculty over the last 10 years who have now taken leadership roles at many prestigious institutions across the country.

“I would like to thank everyone for welcoming Deepti and I to be a part of your UAB family,” said Dhall. “I am excited and truly honored to be among such distinguished group of people. I really look forward to working with all of you and will strive to make Children’s of Alabama and UAB a top destination for children with complex hematologic and oncologic disorders.”

Uncovering a key mechanism in assembly of Avian Sarcoma Virus, a 100-year-old oncogenic virus often used to study HIV-1

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Jamil Saad, Ph.D.

A key step in retroviral growth inside a cell, as described by Jamil Saad, Ph.D., and colleagues, is portrayed on the cover of The Journal of Biological Chemistry. It is a visual image, in molecular detail, of their journal article inside that looks at avian sarcoma virus, or ASV.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham researchers used nuclear magnetic resonance, or NMR, to detail how the matrix domain of the ASV Gag protein binds to certain phospholipids. These phospholipids are vital for Gag protein binding to the plasma membrane of a cell, as the virus replicates and takes its first step toward virus formation and budding.

ASV, a retrovirus that causes cancer in chickens, is the first oncovirus to have been described, more than a century ago. It belongs to the retroviridae family and is closely related to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. ASV is widely used as a model to study mechanisms of HIV infection and replication. By studying similarities and differences in replication of the two viruses, researchers learn basic knowledge that can inform efforts aimed to halt replication and spread of HIV. Despite great similarities in their Gag proteins that initiate virus assembly, retroviruses have distinct mechanisms for assembly that are incompletely understood.

The work led by Saad, associate professor of microbiology at UAB, and a companion paper, led by Carol Carter, Ph.D., professor of molecular genetics and microbiology at Stony Brook University, examined how the ASV Gag protein is targeted to the plasma membrane of the host cell to initiate virus assembly. Their findings elucidate the plasma membrane binding by the matrix domain of Gag, all the way from determining the precise molecular shape of the protein domain to studying its vital activity in living cells to initiate viral budding.

At UAB, Saad and colleagues elucidated the molecular determinants of ASV matrix interaction with lipids and membranes, and they provided a model of how the matrix binds to a cell membrane.

Important findings included:

  • Obtaining a significantly improved structural model of the matrix domain and identifying a membrane binding site that was not obvious in previously determined structures.
  • Providing compelling evidence that a cluster of four lysine amino acids in the matrix domain create a basic surface, which acts as a single binding site that directly interacts with acidic membrane lipids called phosphoinositides.
  • Demonstrating that Gag-membrane interaction is governed by charge-charge interactions.

They also show that, although the HIV matrix domain uses more structural tools to bind to the membrane, both ASV and HIV matrix proteins share almost identical interacting motifs that drive assembly.

As part of the UAB experiments, the researchers found that replacing lysine residues in the binding site of matrix with a different amino acid greatly diminished binding to lipids and membranes.

In the companion paper, Carter and colleagues at Stony Brook University used those mutations in the matrix domain of the ASV Gag protein to show that disruption of the phosophoinositide binding site on the matrix domain inhibited Gag localization at the cell periphery in two different cell lines and severely reduced viral particle production, as compared with unmutated ASV.

“These studies solved a longstanding mystery on how a virus discovered a century ago utilizes the plasma membrane of the host cell to replicate,” Saad said. “What is even more remarkable is how ASV and HIV-1 share very similar structural features that drive membrane targeting and assembly.”

Co-authors with Saad and Carter on the Journal of Biological Chemistry paper, “Structural basis for targeting avian sarcoma virus Gag polyprotein to the plasma membrane for virus assembly,” are Jiri Vlach, Gunnar N. Eastep and Ruba H. Ghanam, UAB Department of Microbiology; and Susan M. Watanabe, Stony Brook University Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology.

This work was supported by National Institutes of Health grant GM117837. The High-Field NMR facility at UAB was established through NIH grant 1S10RR026478 and is currently supported through the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Centerat UAB by the NIH grant CA013148.

The companion paper in the Journal of Biological Chemistry is titled “The matrix domain of the Gag protein from avian sarcoma virus contains a PI(4,5)P2-binding site that targets Gag to the cell periphery.”

Blood and marrow transplant patients celebrate the holidays with UAB

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For nearly 200 patients and family members at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital who have received a blood and/or marrow transplantation in the past year, celebrating the holiday season was made a little more cheerful this year.

This December, a luncheon was hosted at UAB Hospital by UAB and BMT Angels of Alabama Foundation, where patients mingled with one another and even received a special visit from Santa and his elves.

“A cancer diagnosis can be a life-changing or -altering traumatic occurrence, for not only for the patients but the families as well,” said Kaitlin Johnson, MSN, R.N., BMTCN, transplant coordinator of Patient Education for Blood and Marrow Transplants. “We give back day to day with our healing hands and through bringing some Christmas cheer, too.”

UAB’s Bone Marrow Transplantation and Cell Therapy Program is one of the leading transplant centers in the region and has performed more than 1,700 transplants since opening in 1991.

Immunologist John Kearney named AAAS fellow

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John F. Kearney, Ph.D.

John F. Kearney, Ph.D., professor in the University of Alabama at Birmingham’sDepartment of Microbiology, has been named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, or AAAS. Election as an AAAS fellow is an honor bestowed upon AAAS members by their peers.

This year, 416 AAAS members won this honor due to their scientifically or socially distinguished efforts to advance science or its applications. Kearney was elected in the Medical Sciences section of AAAS “for his distinguished contributions to immunology, particularly in understanding B cell development and the role of B cells in autoimmune diseases.”

“UAB and the Department of Microbiology are very pleased that Dr. Kearney has been recognized by AAAS for his considerable research achievements during his career here at UAB,” said Fran Lund, Ph.D., chair of Microbiology. “Dr. Kearney’s lab has, over the years, made a number of important discoveries that are revolutionizing how we manipulate the immune system to treat allergies, asthma and autoimmune disease.”

Kearney came to UAB in 1973 and is notable, among other achievements, for his breakthrough paper, “A New Mouse Myeloma Cell Line that Has Lost Immunoglobulin Expression but Permits the Construction of Antibody-Secreting Cell Lines,” in 1979. This foundational study helped create optimal monoclonal antibodies, and it has been cited more than 2,100 times, according to Google Scholar.

Monoclonal antibodies are valuable in both research and medical treatment. The first therapeutic monoclonal antibodies were commercialized in 1986, and global sales were almost $90 billion in 2015.

“Without Dr. Kearney’s seminal studies that allowed for the easy creation of monoclonal antibodies, the new class of anti-cancer ‘checkpoint inhibitor’ biologic drugs could not have been developed,” Lund said. “In many ways, Dr. Kearney’s studies highlight how experiments that were originally designed to advance our understanding of the fundamental principles underlying immunity can also lead to advances in how we treat human disease.

Kearney began his monoclonal antibody work while on sabbatical from UAB in Germany with the noted immunologist Klaus Rajewsky, Ph.D. “As I look back,” Kearney has said of his sabbatical year, “90 percent of the research I have done since has employed monoclonal antibodies made with the cell line I developed at the University of Cologne.”

The new AAAS fellows will be presented with an official certificate and a gold and blue — representing science and engineering, respectively — rosette pin Saturday, Feb. 16, at the 2019 AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C.

Among his other honors, Kearney was UAB’s 50th Distinguished Faculty Lecturer in 2013.

Other UAB faculty who are AAAS fellows and are current members of AAAS include the following:

  • UAB School of Medicine: N. Rama Krishna, Ph.D., Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics; Etty “Tika” Benveniste, Ph.D., Department of Cell, Developmental and Integrative Biology; Bruce Korf, M.D., Ph.D., Department of Genetics; David Briles, Ph.D., and David Chaplin, M.D., Ph.D., Department of Microbiology; Vladimir Parpura, M.D., Ph.D., Department of Neurobiology; and John Smith, M.D., Ph.D., Department of Pathology.
  • UAB College of Arts and Sciences: Charles Amsler, Ph.D., Jim McClintock, Ph.D., and Steven Austad, Ph.D., Department of Biology; and Edward Taub, Ph.D., Department of Psychology.
  • UAB School of Dentistry: Mary MacDougall, Ph.D., Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery.

Gift from O’Neal Industries will transform the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center

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O’Neal Industries, Inc., a family-owned global business based in Birmingham, and its shareholders have given the largest single gift in the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s history — a $30 million donation to the Comprehensive Cancer Center — which will allow the center to change the lives of more patients and families through transformational cancer research, patient care, education and prevention.
The center will be known as the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

“The O’Neal family has built a legacy in Birmingham, first in the city’s steel industry and now in the city’s future as a biomedical and technology hub,” said Ray L. Watts, M.D., president of UAB. “UAB’s National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center is among the pre-eminent cancer centers in the world, and we are proud and grateful that our cancer center will bear the O’Neal name.”

Members of the O’Neal family have been business and political leaders in Alabama for generations. Edward O’Neal was Alabama’s 26th governor, and his son Emmet served as the state’s 34th governor. Kirkman O’Neal was a pioneer in Birmingham’s burgeoning steel industry, founding what was to become O’Neal Steel in 1921. The family now operates O’Neal Industries Inc., the nation’s largest family-owned group of metals service centers.

“We see this gift as an opportunity to give back in a meaningful way to a cause that is important to everyone,” said Craft O’Neal, chairman and CEO of O’Neal Industries and grandson of Kirkman. “We hope the gift will be used in ways that will yield the greatest results, accelerating progress in research, treatment and prevention of cancer and, ultimately, eliminate cancer as a major public health problem.”

The gift and naming will be formally considered for acceptance by the University of Alabama System Board of Trustees at its February meeting.

“This gift will enhance the profile and impact of the cancer center as a premier national destination for those working to end cancer, and those fighting a personal battle with the disease,” said Selwyn Vickers, M.D., senior vice president and dean of the UAB School of Medicine. “It will have lifesaving results that can serve as a catalyst for further philanthropic investment, and we are grateful to the O’Neal family and O’Neal Industries for their leadership in the fight to end cancer.”

The UAB Cancer Center was one of the original eight comprehensive cancer centers established by the National Cancer Act in 1971 and has been continuously funded for 46 years.

“We have made great strides in cancer treatment and prevention in the past several decades,” said Will Ferniany, Ph.D., CEO of the UAB Health System. “In the years ahead, the promise of proton therapy, precision oncology, advanced genomics and new therapeutics should reduce the burden of cancer on individual patients and their families, and on the health care system as a whole. The generous O’Neal gift will be a driving force that transforms cancer care moving forward.”

Craft O’Neal, CEO and chairman of O’Neal Industries, Inc., the nation’s largest family-owned group of metals service centers.

UAB is the only National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center in its four-state region. It also maintains joint ventures with Russell Medical Center and North Alabama Medical Center and manages the Deep South Network for Cancer Control, an outreach into underserved communities in Alabama and Mississippi. The UAB Health System maintains a Cancer Community Health Network in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi.

“This truly transformational gift will have a far-reaching impact on cancer research and patient care in our community, state and region,” said Michael J. Birrer, M.D., Ph.D., director of the center. “It strengthens our clinical operation, expands our cancer research efforts, helps translate discoveries into clinical trials, and further establishes the center as a leader in cancer research and care in the nation. The impact of this gift not only will be felt in the cancer center but will be an economic driver for Birmingham and Alabama.”

The O’Neals’ extended family has been touched by cancer. Kirkman’s son and successor, Emmet, Craft’s father, died from emergency surgery associated with colon cancer, and his daughter Libby O’Neal White was a breast cancer survivor. Her husband, David White, succumbed to cancer, as did Craft O’Neal’s mother Mary Anne and his brother Kirk. Additional members of both the O’Neal and White families have both survived and lost their lives to cancer.

“The O’Neal and White families know too well the devastating effects of cancer, and together we were motivated by the opportunity to play a role in extending the lives of those with cancer in the region, while honoring our family members who have been afflicted by the disease,” O’Neal said.

The gift will boost patient care and help triple the number of patients enrolled in clinical trials conducted at UAB.

The O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB is home to more than 400 scientists and physician-scientists and is involved in more than 200 clinical trials of new, promising therapeutics, many using therapies that were developed at UAB. The center treats an estimated 5,000 new patients each year.

The gift will enhance patient access and overall patient care, according to Birrer. Additionally it will expand research efforts, potentially tripling the number of clinical trials conducted at UAB. The gift will also help recruiting efforts of additional investigators and provide leverage for new grant funding.

O’Neal industries and its shareholders have a deep history of philanthropy with UAB. Craft O’Neal is a longtime member of the cancer center’s advisory board, and over the years, O’Neal Industries and family members have supported departments across UAB, including the Comprehensive Cancer Center, the Collat School of Business, the Department of Neurology, the School of Nursing, the Comprehensive Diabetes Center and UAB Athletics.

“Our company has a nearly 100-year history here, and that will continue,” O’Neal said. “We believe in giving back to the community that has been so good to us. UAB is the economic engine of Birmingham and, to a large extent, the state of Alabama. My hope is that others will see the exciting developments at the cancer center and want to invest in its future and that of our city as well.”

Headquartered in Birmingham, O’Neal Industries represents a family of six companies with a global reach. There are 80 separate business locations, including 15 international facilities on four continents, employing more than 3,200 people.

“My grandfather’s and father’s generations of O’Neal employees laid the foundation for the success we enjoy today,” O’Neal said. “This success enables us to give back in all the communities in which we are located, and do even bigger things here at our headquarters in Birmingham. I hope each of our employees, loyal customers and supportive suppliers will take pride in this gift, because without their contributions to our success, we would not be able to give back in such a meaningful way.”

For more information on the impact the gift will have on the cancer center, go to www.uab.edu/news.

O’Neal Industries gift will leverage advances in cancer research, patient care and biotechnology growth

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The gift will help recruit new faculty, build research infrastructure and provide an economic boost for Birmingham.

The economic impact of a $30 million gift from O’Neal Industries and its shareholders to the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham may be felt four ways, says Michael Birrer, M.D., Ph.D., center director. The gift will help:

  • Recruit additional talented cancer scientists and clinicians to UAB, along with the hefty federal grants they garner.
  • Expand the number of cancer treatment clinical trials at UAB, an increase that will help patients throughout Alabama and the Southeast.
  • Plant the seed for a UAB/Biotech collaboration that can grow into a future Birmingham biotechnology park, much as eastern Cambridge, Massachusetts, has transformed in the past three decades from an aged manufacturing area to a biotechnology boomtown.
  • Create a distinctive brand around the center for UAB, Alabama and the Deep South.

All of these can boost UAB’s already considerable impact as the key economic engine for Greater Birmingham.

The $30 million gift will go into an endowment — creating a yearly flexible fund of about $1.5 million that leadership of the cancer center and UAB School of Medicine can use in ways that best leverage further advancement of the cancer center.

“For example,” Birrer said, “let’s say we want to apply for a SPORE grant (Specialized Programs of Research Excellence), the big grants from the National Cancer Institute that focus on a specific organ site or group of cancers. However, in order to do this, we have to hire what I would call a pre-award grants administrator.”

This administrator would be the initial step to help prime the pump toward winning a major grant with multi-year funding.

A similar leveraging opportunity is found in expanding clinical trials at UAB, which will offer hope to cancer patients and bring in dollars, Birrer says. Endowment funds could help hire one or two clinical trials experts, as well as clinical research coordinators, clinical research associates and research nurses. “These kinds of hires are actually not easy,” Birrer said.

Cancer Center Director Michael J. Birrer, M.D., Ph.D.

Clinical trials that patients want
Expansion of clinical trials — with the goal of increasing the annual accrual of cancer patients from the current 500 new patients a year to 1,500 new patients — will be felt across the Southeast.

“Clinical trials are effectively experiments where you are testing new drugs versus the standard care,” Birrer said. “What the patient would normally get is compared to something new, and this is how the field moves forward. It’s how we discover new effective therapies.”
The center offers a mix of what Birrer calls “different flavors” of trials — including national multi-center trials and drug company-sponsored trials.
Birrer especially favors a third type — early drug development trials — for two reasons that can benefit Birmingham and Alabama.

“The first reason is that’s what patients want,” Birrer said. “Drug development has changed radically over the past 10 to 15 years. It used to be a gamble, in the sense that most drugs fail, and it was a bit of a random chance. Now, with all the molecular biology that we have and all the preclinical testing, the chance that a drug is going to work is much higher, and patients know that.”

“They come here asking for these drugs.”

Best route to economic development
“The other reason,” Birrer said, “and one that is very important from my perspective, is that the companies involved in early drug development are not only Big Pharma but also Biotech,” Birrer said, using the nickname for the biotechnology industry, which has a mix of many smaller players. “I think we can create a UAB/Biotech collaboration here in Birmingham that will help our patients and also drive innovation and revenue for the city.”

“UAB has some high-profile programs like neuroscience and precision medicine,” he said. “But the most branded program at UAB — and the one that has clearest route to economic development in Birmingham — is cancer, unfortunately because it is a common disease and patients need treatments.”

Birrer says he has already found one receptive listener for the concept of a future Birmingham biotechnology park — Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin. “The economic impact can be huge,” Birrer said. With the now exploding Biotech industry, I think there is a real opportunity.”

Alabama has a comparative advantage, he says, since labor costs for biotechnology companies in Cambridge are probably twice what they would be in Birmingham. “UAB has 20,000 undergraduates who are well-trained, we have the patient volume, and we have expertise in clinical trials.”

Craft O’Neal, chairman and CEO of O’Neal Industries, says he recognizes the economic impact the $30 million O’Neal gift will make, and suggests the gift may be an impetus to get other philanthropic snowballs rolling.

“My understanding is, for every dollar invested in the cancer center, there is at least a $14 return,” O’Neal said. “That’s pretty spectacular, and I love the fact our gift will help in that regard. It makes me proud, and I’d love to see others come forward with large gifts as well.”

The gift and naming will be formally considered for acceptance by the University of Alabama System Board of Trustees at its February meeting. For more information on the gift, go to www.uab.edu/news.

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beenat@uab.edu

 

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