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Immunologist John Kearney named AAAS fellow

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

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

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

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

Business graduate pursues career with UPS after bout with childhood cancers

A two-time childhood cancer survivor, Rusty Duvall will graduate from the University of Alabama at Birmingham with his bachelor’s degree in industrial distribution Saturday, Dec. 15, and start his dream job with the United Parcel Service in January.

When Duvall was 7 years old, physicians found a brain tumor that his parents knew would impact his life. At age 11, Duvall was diagnosed with a rare cancer in the bones of his eye socket.

“Sometimes I feel like my childhood was ripped from me in the blink of an eye,” said Duvall, a senior in the UAB Collat School of Business from St. Clair County, Alabama. “I spent a lot of time in the hospital. I didn’t get to grow up doing a lot of the things that I wanted to do. When I did get to go home, I was really weak and tired.”

Within the first four weeks of his brain tumor diagnosis, Duvall had four surgeries related to the brain tumor and a fifth surgery later that year. At one point, Duvall had fluid leaking from his brain and had to have emergency surgery to place a shunt in order to stop the drainage.

Duvall did not suffer any serious problems from brain surgery, but has felt the lifelong effects from the high dosage of chemotherapy and the surgeries that followed. Duvall has chronic peripheral neuropathy, where the nerves in his right leg are dead, leaving him without muscle strength. He had several surgeries over the course of three and a half years to fix the nerve damage in his leg and eventually help him walk better in the future.

“I have a slight limp when I walk from the lack of muscle strength in my right leg,” Duvall said. “Unfortunately, they were never able to fully repair the nerves, but were able to prevent further damage. My legs and ankles are still very weak.”

The high dosage chemotherapy made Duvall very sick, lose his hair and become extremely underweight. Because of the surgeries and chemotherapy, Duvall missed most of his second- and third-grade years in school. His teachers at Odenville Elementary School made sure he did not miss out on his education by working with his parents to complete assignments at home.

“School was always important to me, but it was hard to keep up with the work during this time,” Duvall said. “I would try my best to get up and go to school, but I was just physically too weak and sick to be there. Luckily, my teachers and my mom helped me through, and I passed both grades.”

Four years later, he was diagnosed with a rare bone cancer near his eye that was completely unrelated to the brain tumor. Duvall was devastated to learn that he had cancer again and became depressed. The physicians at Children’s of Alabama did a biopsy on the bone cancer to determine that it was easily treatable. Duvall underwent two surgeries to remove the cancer and another year of chemotherapy and steroids.

“My parents and I couldn’t believe that we had to go through this again,” Duvall said. “The treatments made me very sick, and I was out of school for most of my sixth-grade year, too.”

Duvall’s teachers worked with him to help him finish up the school year on time. On Aug. 18, 2008, he received his last chemotherapy treatment just in time to start seventh grade. He had 13 surgeries related to the two cancer diagnoses, with the last surgery taking place when he was a senior in high school.

“Cancer has changed me and made me a better person,” Duvall said. “Every day is a new day, and each day is a chance to get better and improve myself.”

In 2005, Duvall started attending Camp Smile-A-Mile, an organization that provides year-round programming that serves children and their families from diagnosis and throughout the years of treatment. Taylor Lawrence was his camp counselor from 2010-2014 and is a UAB Collat School of Business alumni. Lawrence and Duvall discussed his future and what he wanted to do. Lawrence would tell Duvall what college classes were like and the career opportunities that could follow upon graduation.

“I knew I wanted to go to UAB to pursue my degree and secure my future,” Duvall said. “But college was not looking like an option because of financial constraints. My parents worked hard to provide for me and my siblings, but college just seemed far-fetched.”

Upon graduation from St. Clair County High School in 2014, Duvall continued to pursue his dreams of higher education by applying for The Smith Scholarship Foundation, which provides scholarships to deserving Alabama students who have served their communities and have also faced adversity throughout their lives.

“Rusty is the type of person we should all want to be: kind, considerate and dedicated,” said Ahrian Dudley, executive director of the The Smith Scholarship Foundation. “He achieves through perseverance and grit. Securing his degree and job was not easy. Rusty learned to adapt both academically and professionally by maturely dealing with obstacles.  He combined his hard work and support systems in place at UAB, the Foundation and community to succeed. He has accomplished more than he dreamed possible when he first set foot on campus. We are so proud of him and the positive impact he has already made on so many people.”

During Duvall’s high school years, he had volunteered and served his community for more than 300 hours. His ability to overcome his challenges, alongside giving back to his community, led to his selection as a Smith Scholar. The scholarship and support programs enabled him to attend UAB and complete his degree.

In the fall of 2014, Duvall started UAB in pursuit of a nursing degree. He had been in and out of hospitals so much as a young child, and thought this was his calling. After speaking with his mentor, Lawrence, he learned about the UAB Collat School of Business’s Industrial Distribution program. During Duvall’s junior year, he switched his major looking to find a career in the business industry.

Duvall received an internship with UPS before his junior year at UAB, where he learned the inner workings of industrial engineering at the Memphis distribution center. Duvall was invited back to intern with UPS before his senior year at the Birmingham distribution center. Upon graduation, Duvall will work at UPS full time as an industrial engineer supervisor.

“The experience I received at UPS really proved that I had taken the right career path,” Duvall said. “When they offered me a job, I couldn’t believe that I achieved my dreams amid all of the challenges I faced as a child.”

A cancer drug may help treat human papillomavirus infections

Sanjib Banerjee, Ph.D.

Preclinical experiments by University of Alabama at Birminghamresearchers suggest the cancer drugs vorinostat, belinostat and panobinostat might be repurposed to treat infections caused by human papillomaviruses, or HPVs.

HPV infections caused an estimated 266,000 deaths from cervical cancer worldwide in 2012, according to the World Health Organization. Routine screening by Pap smears or HPV DNA tests has reduced death rates in developed countries compared to less developed regions of the globe. Still, an estimated 12,200 United States women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year.

Highly efficacious vaccines against HPV infection exist — including the recently approved Gardasil 9, which immunizes against nine genotypes of HPV known to cause cervical, vulvar, vaginal and anal cancers, and genital warts. But the vaccine needs to be given before a person becomes sexually active, since it has no therapeutic efficacy against existing HPV infections.

“Safe, effective and inexpensive therapeutic agents are urgently needed,” said N. Sanjib Banerjee, Ph.D., assistant professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics at UAB and lead author of the vorinostat study.

Epithelium of anogenital sites — the cervix, penis and anus — or epithelium of the mouth and throat are sites of HPV infection. But HPVs cannot be propagated in conventional cell culture, hampering the investigation into their pathogenic effects. The laboratory of Louise Chow, Ph.D., and Thomas Broker, Ph.D., in the UAB Department Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics has investigated HPV-host interactions for decades. They discovered that the productive program of HPV depends on differentiation of the epithelium into a full-thickness, squamous epithelium. Furthermore, HPV reactivates host DNA replication in these differentiated cells, such that the replication proteins and substrates become available to support viral DNA amplification.

The Chow and Broker lab re-produced a fully differentiated human squamous epithelium by culturing primary human keratinocytes at an air-media interphase for two to three weeks, a growth they call raft culture. In 2009, their lab developed a breakthrough model for a raft culture of HPV-18-infected primary human keratinocytes, allowing a robust amplification of HPV-18 DNA and production of infective viral progeny. This productive raft culture is an ideal model for preclinical investigation of potential anti-HPV agents.

Banerjee and colleagues hypothesized that inhibitors of histone deacetylases, or HDACs, would inhibit HPV DNA amplification because of their known mechanism of disrupting chromosomal DNA replication. Chromosomal replication requires HDAC alterations of histone proteins, the proteins that act like spools that wind DNA to help package and condense chromosomes and the viral genome. Vorinostat inhibits many HDACs, so it might interrupt not only chromosomal replication but also viral DNA replication.

Using the HPV-18 model raft cultures, the researchers found that vorinostat effectively inhibited HPV-18 DNA amplification and virus production. Importantly, vorinostat also induced the programmed cell death called apoptosis in a fraction of the differentiated cells. Cell death could be attributable to DNA breakage when chromosomal DNA replication was interrupted. Similar results were obtained with two additional HDAC inhibitors, belinostat and panobinostat. In contrast, the differentiated cells of uninfected raft cultures, which do not replicate their DNA, were thus largely spared in the presence of the inhibitors.

The UAB team also examined how vorinostat affected levels and functions of viral oncoproteins, and they described the mechanisms that led to programmed cell death in HPV-18-infected cultures. “On the basis of these detailed studies,” Banerjee said, “we suggest that HDAC inhibitors are promising compounds for treating benign HPV infections, abrogating progeny production and hence interrupting infectious transmission.”

The UAB team also reported that vorinostat caused extensive cell death in raft cultures of dysplastic and cancer cell lines harboring HPV-16. HPV-16 and HPV-18 are the most prevalent, high-risk HPVs responsible for causing anogenital and oropharyngeal cancers. “But further investigation would be required to verify that these agents could also be useful in treating HPV associated dysplasias and cancers,” Banerjee said.

Authors of the paper, “Vorinostat, a pan-HDAC inhibitor, abrogates productive HPV-18 DNA amplification,” published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, are Banerjee, Chow, Broker and Dianne W. Moore, UAB Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics.

Support came from National Institutes of Health grant CA83679, UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center/HIV-Associated Malignancy Pilot Grant 316851, UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center Pilot Grant 5P30CA013148-43 and UAB Bridge Funding.

At UAB, Chow holds the Anderson Family Chair in Medical Education, Research and Patient Care in the School of Medicine.

Canon, Morgan appointed to American Board of Radiology leadership positions

Cheri L. Canon, M.D., and Desiree Morgan, M.D.

Cheri L. Canon, M.D., professor and Witten-Stanley Endowed Chair of Radiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, has been named to the American Board of Radiology’s Board of Governors. Desiree E. Morgan, M.D., professor and vice chair for Education in the Department of Radiology at UAB, has been appointed to the American Board of Radiology’s Board of Trustees.

Canon, who previously served the ABR as a trustee, will now serve the board in matters of finance, strategic planning, priority setting, and oversight of American Board of Medical Specialty matters.

Morgan hopes her experience will enable her to improve the abdominal imaging certification process.

“As the abdominal trustee, I plan to help the ABR as it advances the quality, relevance and effectiveness of its exams for initial certification and maintenance of certification across all disciplines of radiology; but my particular expertise will be focused on the gastrointestinal, genitourinary, ultrasound, and reproductive/endocrine radiology arenas,” Morgan said. “The ABR Board of Trustees is responsible for aiding in operational decisions around certification testing, including exam goals, format, content, assembly, delivery, scoring and feedback.”

Canon will serve on the Board of Governors for four years. Morgan will serve on the Board of Trustees for three years.

“A 4 percent chance is nothing to me”

Former MLB player Frank Baker says his experience at UAB’s Pancreatobiliary Disease Center was a home run. (Photo courtesy of The Baltimore Orioles)

Frank Baker never thought he would have the word “cancer” associated with his name.

Baker, a former major league baseball player with the New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles, had never even been admitted to a hospital before.

That changed in March 2018.

“One day in late February, I noticed that my urine was dark brown,” Baker said. “I thought something was wrong, and then a day or two later I was completely yellow due to jaundice.”

The 71-year-old Meridian, Mississippi, native visited his local doctor and received a stent in his bile duct.

After receiving his stent, Baker decided to get treatment at UAB’s new Pancreatobiliary Disease Center. That is where he met J. Bart Rose, M.D., assistant professor in the Department of Surgery.

“Mr. Baker came to see me, and I told him I would present him to our tumor board,” Rose said. “I thought he would be a good candidate for chemotherapy and radiation first, followed by an operation to remove the tumor.”

Baker was diagnosed with pancreatic adenocarcinoma, a fairly rare cancer. Rose says the overall cure rate for this cancer is 8 percent, but can be as high as 20 percent in patients who have an operation. Unfortunately, nearly half the people who are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer have an even tougher battle because the cancer has metastasized and an operation is not an option.

“It’s a pretty aggressive cancer,” Rose said.

Baker had no family history of pancreatic cancer, but he was not afraid of the outcome.

“I have a belief system that I strongly believe in,” Baker said. “Dr. Rose told me that, if I didn’t do anything to treat this, I would have probably nine months to live. I thought to myself, ‘I’m in a win-win situation. With all the skill and technology available, they can cure me, and I’ll go on my way. But if not, I can die and be with Jesus.”

Frank Baker spent four seasons in the majors as a shortstop, including two with the Baltimore Orioles in 1973 and 1974. (Photo courtesy of The Baltimore Orioles)

The word cancer would not knock Baker off his feet. Baker, who played four years in the majors with the likes of Mel Stottlemyre, Brooks Robinson, Don Baylor and Jim Palmer, spent several years in the New York Yankees minor league system, so adversity and perseverance were not new concepts to him.

“They say in the minors, you have a 4 to 10 percent chance of making it to the majors,” he said. “I already beat those odds, so I knew I could beat this. A 4 percent chance is nothing.”

The UAB Pancreatobiliary Disease Center is made up of advanced gastroenterologists, interventional radiologists, medical and radiation oncologists, critical care intensivists, surgeons, pathologists, genetic counselors, and specialty support staff.

During his time at UAB, Baker was treated by several physicians and nurses, which makes UAB’s Pancreatobiliary Disease Center special. Baker met with Mel C. Wilcox, M.D., and Ali Ahmed, M.D., professor and assistant professor, respectively, in the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology.

“Our multidisciplinary approach ensures patients with complex benign or malignant problems involving the pancreas or bile duct will be offered appropriate and modern treatment, in an expedited fashion, all done in conjunction with their local providers,” Rose said.

Rose says that, while malignancies of the pancreas and bile duct present their own unique challenges to treatment, so does the litany of benign diseases affecting these organs. Both acute and chronic pancreatitis can be very difficult to treat.

“We have designed an infrastructure to support and treat patients with these diseases with cutting-edge techniques and minimally invasive approaches,” he said.

While he currently receives chemotherapy treatment in Mississippi, Baker says he was treated so well at UAB, he felt as though he was the only patient at UAB during his time.

“All of the nurses and doctors were so kind and courteous,” he said. “We just all really hit it off. I just can’t say enough good things about the people at UAB.”

For more information on the UAB Pancreatobiliary Disease Center, call 833-UAB-4PDC (833-822-4732).

‘Jaw in a day’ surgery the first of its kind in Alabama

Before surgery, the tumor grew into Bacon’s jaw bone.

Around 20 years ago, Traci Bacon, a Birmingham, Alabama, resident, noticed small bumps appearing in her mouth. When her general dentist at the time told her she had nothing to worry about, she heeded his advice.

After two decades, the tiny, unassuming bumps grew into a large, destructive tumor – an ossifying fibroma in the front of her chin. After three different referrals to area oral and maxillofacial surgeons, Bacon was sent to the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Dentistry’s Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery for another opinion.

“Traci’s tumor — an ossifying fibroma — was non-cancerous and would not metastasize, but the tumor had invaded her jaw bone,” said Anthony Morlandt, M.D., DDS, associate professor and chief in the section of Oral Oncology in UAB’s Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery and associate scientist in UAB’s Comprehensive Cancer Center. “Without surgery, the tumor would eventually destroy and collapse her jaw bone entirely, taking away her ability to eat, drink and speak normally.”

A surgery the first of its kind

Morlandt, along with Yedeh Ying, DMD, M.D., and Michael Kase, DMD, assistant professors in UAB’s Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, developed a surgical and prosthodontic treatment plan for Bacon that would be the first of its kind in the state of Alabama and one of a handful done in the country — a radical mandibulectomy, fibula free flap reconstruction, with simultaneous 3D-guided dental implant and immediate previsualization in one sitting. It is also coined as “jaw in a day.”

Bacon’s reconstructed jaw after her surgery.

The surgical plan, carried out preoperatively using 3D navigation and computer-aided design, involved removal of the lower jaw, tumor, soft tissue and eight teeth, immediately replaced the missing bone with a fibula free flap from the patient’s lower leg, while simultaneously placing dental implants to replace the missing teeth with a new smile. Using 3D planning and navigation, the surgery is the most comprehensive restoration of the jaw and teeth performed in Alabama.

Morlandt notes that, in patients who lose their jaw to cancer or traumatic events like gunshot wounds, at least 12-18 months are necessary replace the jaw with bone from the leg, place dental implants, and fit the patient with a permanent dental prosthesis. The UAB team, however, was determined to complete it in just one day as a way to expedite healing and normalcy for the patient and minimize the devastating psychological impact on the patient and her family.

Upon learning about a proposed reconstructive jaw surgery to remove the tumor and rebuild her jaw, remove more than eight of her teeth, and use bone and skin from her leg, Bacon knew that she had a challenging decision to make: Should she let the tumor stay put and eventually lose the ability to use her jaw, or undergo a radical, intense surgery and recovery with the hope of normal jaw functionality in the future?

“I had so many concerns — would my face look different? Would my speech be impaired? How soon could I get teeth? How long would it take my leg to heal?” Bacon said. “I prayed a lot. The team at UAB were patient with me, answered all my questions, gave me weeks to make a decision and really included me in every step of the treatment planning.”

A surgical success

A key in the preparation for Bacon’s “jaw in a day” surgery included using state-of-the-art 3D technology for planning and navigation, as well to print models of Bacon’s existing and future jaw. Collaboration with American and German engineers helped the UAB team virtually complete the surgery digitally before performing the case in the operating room.

On the left, Bacon’s tumor was visible on her chin. To the right, Bacon is healing well post-surgery, with the tumor completely removed.

After a successful eight-hour surgery, Bacon’s recovery process began. Nearly five months post-surgery, Bacon’s leg is fully healed and the surgical incisions on her neck and face are hardly noticeable. The site where the tumor once resided looks as if nothing had been there.

For the UAB OMFS team, the completion of the “jaw in a day” surgery sets a new standard of surgical care that will help other oral oncology and oral surgery patients.

“What we learned from this procedure is that we have the team, resources and technology in place at UAB to give oral surgery patients the absolute best outcome in Alabama and in the country,” Morlandt said. “A mandibulectomy and fibula free flap reconstruction isn’t a new surgery; but we are helping to evolve the manner and level in which the surgery is completed, which only betters the lives of our patients here at UAB moving forward. Our fellowship-trained surgical team, together with our full-time in-house maxillofacial prosthodontist, made this case possible and paved the way for the future of jaw tumor surgery in Alabama.”

As for Bacon, the recovery process is ongoing; but she has learned a lot throughout the process.

“I learned that, in order to get through a surgery like this, you need a lot of faith and a strong support system,” Bacon said. “I know without a doubt that God carried me through and gave me a peace that I won’t understand. I’m forever grateful that I was led to the surgical team at UAB who went out of their way to lead me through this journey with exceptional care.”

Epigenetics expert Bernstein to give first lecture in inaugural Cancer Center grand rounds

Bradley E. Bernstein, M.D., Ph.D., professor of pathology at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and director of the Broad Institute’s Epigenomics Program, will present “Epigenetic Plasticity and the Hallmarks of Cancer” Friday, November 30 as the inaugural speaker of the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center Grand Rounds.

Bernstein’s lecture will begin at noon in the Margaret Cameron Spain Auditorium. Lunch will be provided.

“Dr. Bernstein is an internationally recognized expert in epigenetics in cancer. He has led this emerging field with a particular attention to clinically impactful discoveries,” said Michael J. Birrer, M.D., Ph.D., Evalina B. Spencer Chair in Oncology and director of the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center.

The lecture is the first in the annual Cancer Center Grand Rounds, which will bring premiere cancer researchers from across the country to UAB.  “The Cancer Center Grand Rounds series will connect UAB research with cutting edge technical and scientific discoveries in cancer. This will ensure our researchers are well informed and poised to help move the field forward,” Birrer said. “Further, this series will inform leaders in cancer research to the wonderful scientific environment at UAB.”

Bernstein is the Bernard and Mildred Kayden Research Institute Chair and Professor of Pathology at Massachusetts General Hospital, and a Broad Institute Member. Bernstein’s research focuses on epigenetics – changes in gene activity governed by influences outside the genes themselves – and specifically how modifications to the protein scaffold called chromatin contribute to mammalian development and human cancer. His work is notable for the identification of specialized chromatin structures that underlie stem cell pluripotency and aberrant epigenetic mechanisms that drive tumor initiation and drug resistance. He currently directs the Broad Institute’s Epigenomics Program, and is a leader of the NIH’s ENCODE project that aims to map all regulatory sequence elements in the human genome.

Bernstein received his B.S. from Yale University and his M.D. and Ph.D. from the University of Washington, before completing a residency in clinical pathology and postdoctoral research at Harvard University. Honors include an Early Career Scientist Award from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a Career Award in the Biomedical Sciences from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award, an American Cancer Society Professorship and the Paul Marks Prize for Cancer Research.

Krontiras and Rutledge selected as Women Who Shape the State

Helen Krontiras, M.D., director of the Division of Surgical Oncology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and Chrystal Rutledge, M.D., assistant professor in the Department of Critical Care Pediatrics, have been named two of Alabama Media Group’s 2018 Women Who Shape the State.

Krontiras, a breast surgical oncologist and professor in the Department of Surgery, joined UAB as an assistant professor 15 years ago and now serves as director of the UAB Division of Surgical Oncology and as medical director of the UAB Breast Health Center.

“I’m honored to be named one of the 2018 Women Who Shape the State and to be in such great company with Dr. Beierle and Dr. Locke, as well as the other 29 women who received this award this year,” Krontiras said. “The work we do within the Division of Surgical Oncology, the UAB Breast Health Center and the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center has such an impact on so many patients, directly and as a result of our cancer research.”

Krontiras’ research focuses primarily on the chemoprevention of breast cancer. She is a senior scientist at the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center and also serves as the clinical investigator on a new drug in development at UAB that hopes to reduce the risk of developing breast cancer, called UAB30.

Rutledge, a graduate of the UAB School of Medicine in 2008, also serves as medical director for the Critical Care Transport Team at Children’s of Alabama. Her research focuses on the use of simulation to teach the entire spectrum of health care providers using simulation to improve preparedness of community health care workers for sick children.

“This award means the work I am doing is meaningful and is impacting communities around the state, much like the one I grew up in,” Rutledge said.

Rutledge is helping to improve the care of children across the state through the Children’s of Alabama Community Healthcare Education Simulation (COACHES) Program.

“This free program gives me the opportunity to go to community hospitals across the state and provide educational training to hospital staff, as well as assess the hospital to make sure they have the appropriate infrastructure, policies, protocols and equipment to care for children,” she said.

Every year, AMG presents 30 Alabama women with the Women Who Shape the State award. These women are considered by their peers to be leaders within their respective communities and professional industries and are nominated in recognition of their efforts to advance Alabama through their work in philanthropy, commerce, advocacy or public service, as well as their work in the nonprofit or small-business sectors. Since its creation in 2015, the Women Who Shape the State list has included the Division of Pediatric Surgery’s Elizabeth Beierle, M.D.who was named in the 2016 list, and the Division of Transplantation’s Jayme Locke, M.D.who was named in the 2015 list.