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Denver Metro Regional Science Fair

Upwards of 280 middle- and high-school students toting colorful scientific displays recently converged on the University of Colorado Denver campus, seeking scholarship, mentorship and, of course, cold, hard cash.

Young minds from across the Denver-metro area joined in the 55th Annual Denver Metro Regional Science and Engineering Fair (DMRSEF), an event aimed at engaging youth in the science fields.

“This is so exciting for young scientists to interact with professionals,” said Meredith Tennis, PhD, an assistant professor in the CU School of Medicine (SOM). “It’s also a very rewarding experience. They can win money to help further their education or get more exposure to the sciences,” said Tennis, who has been a judge coordinator for the past 10 years.

Sponsors of the event include both CU Denver and the CU Anschutz Medical Campus.

Feeding curious minds

Students were split by grade into junior and senior groups, and their projects were divided into 14 categories, ranging from biological sciences to microbiology and materials sciences to physics and astronomy.

Students from across the Denver area competed in the annual DMRSEF.

In the microbiology category, Jocelynn King, an eighth-grader at Challenge School in Denver, wanted to know if antibiotics were present in the Cherry Creek Reservoir and Chatfield Reservoir. She took samples from each reservoir and tested them at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Her results were inconclusive, but she was hopeful to study this subject further. Her display was uniquely interactive, with small Petri dishes scattered in front of her poster, each filled with a paper version of her experiment.

“What stuck out to me was a young man looking at the buoyancy of eggs,” said Danielle Sansone-Poe, a student in the Master’s Program in Biomedical Sciences & Biotechnology in the CU Anschutz Graduate School. “He wanted to find a better way to gauge freshness. Although he didn’t find what he was looking for, you could really feel the passion behind his presentation. These future scientists are exactly what the field needs: a fresh take and a positive attitude.”

Scientists of the future

Students explained their experiments and findings to panels of expert judges, including CU students and faculty, as well as industry members. They used posters laid with pictures and text to help explain their process and answer questions.

Ranging from category “Best” to “Best in Show,” 28 projects were chosen to receive awards. Edwin Bodoni from Cherry Creek High School, Peyton Leyendecker from SkyView Academy, and Krithik Ramesh from Cherry Creek High School, won first, second and third place, respectively, in the senior division of “Best in Show.” They each received an all-expense paid trip to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Pittsburgh, Pa., as well as varying cash prizes.

“It’s so important to foster young scientists’ passion,” said Jon Kibbie, a fifth-year MD/PhD candidate in the CU SOM, who has judged the competition for two years in a row. “We need to pass the torch down to the next generation of scientists.”

A student explains his work to a judge in hopes of winning a top prize.

Being part of the event also offers CU students a glimpse of the future, said Sansone-Poe. “This is a great way to see what scientists of the next generation are interested in,” she said. “Elevating and encouraging our youth is not only fulfilling; it raises the overall quality of science.”

By hosting the event, CU Denver also offers youth a taste of campus life.

“This competition gives students from across Denver the chance to see and experience the CU Denver campus,” said Lin Browning, co-director of the DMRSEF and executive director of Area Health Education Center (AHEC). “We want to open students to the idea of college. They also get the great opportunity to interact with university faculty students and industry partners. They very well may shape their future research.”

CU student volunteers noted that they might be grooming their own future colleagues.

“I hope to have a lab of my own someday soon,” said Sansone-Poe. “These students will be the research assistants, PhD candidates and post-docs that I’ll work with. It’s never too soon to start preparing them for the challenges that all scientists face.”

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Shared decision-making between patients and clinicians can result in better choices

As more and more older patients are offered advanced treatments for chronic diseases, including surgeries and implantable devices, new questions have arisen over how these decisions are made.

In a study published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus examined this question by focusing on the decision-making that goes into whether a patient should proceed with a therapy called left ventricular assist device or LVAD.

They found that shared decision-making between patients and clinicians can improve the quality of the final decision in these often high-risk interventions.

Dr. Larry Allen, associate professor of medicine-cardiology at the CU School of Medicine.
Dr. Larry Allen, associate professor of medicine-cardiology at the CU School of Medicine. Allen co-authored the study.

“LVAD is growing rapidly among people dying from end-stage heart failure who are unable to get a heart transplant,” said study co-author Dr.Larry Allen, MD, associate professor of medicine-cardiology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. “These patients decide to live out the remainder of their lives dependent on a partial artificial heart—so-called destination therapy (DT). Although patients may live longer with a DT LVAD, it also poses many risks, including stroke, serious infection, and bleeding, and comes with big lifestyle changes.”

Deciding whether to go forward with LVAD is often difficult for patients. Yet until recently, there were few tools available for patients and health care providers to use in LVAD shared decision-making.

“Because of this, the Colorado Program for Patient Centered Decisions spent years developing unbiased pamphlet and video decision aids for patients and caregivers, and paired them with training for doctors and nurses,” said study co-author Jocelyn Thompson, MA, of the CU School of Medicine.

The researchers set out to see how well these decision aids worked in routine care to help patients make quality choices around DT LVAD.

Six hospitals across the United States participated in a trial called the Decision Support Intervention for Patients and Caregivers Offered Destination Therapy Heart Assist Device (DECIDE-LVAD).

They switched from their current pre-LVAD education practices—usually consisting of locally made documents and pamphlets from the companies that make the LVADs—to using the formal decision aids and providing decision support training for the staff.

Patients were surveyed during the hospitals’ usual process, called the control period, and during the time the formal decision aids were used, called the intervention period. Researchers wanted to see how the new process changed LVAD decision-making.

A total of 248 patients were enrolled in the study. Some 95 percent of those in the intervention period received the formal decision aids. When compared to those in the control period, patients exposed to the decision aids had an improved understanding of the DT LVAD decision. This was demonstrated by a 5.5% increase in correct answers on a knowledge test.

The decision aids also improved values-choice agreement. In the intervention period, patients who said they were willing to undergo risky surgery for a chance to extend life were more likely to get an LVAD while those who didn’t want to be dependent on a machine were more likely to turn down LVAD.

Overall, patients who received the decision aids were more likely not to get an LVAD.

Allen said the DECIDE-LVAD trial shows that the use of formal, unbiased, patient decision aids for LVADs can help patients dying from heart failure improve the quality of decision-making. It may also change the rate at which they decide to proceed with such high-risk, high-reward treatment.

The study was funded by the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI).

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Share photos of your research at CU Anschutz

The University Communications social media team recently launched a mini-campaign that encourages the CU Anschutz community to share its research and/or lab pictures in an effort to bring attention to innovative research projects taking place on campus.

Because our social media team members found it can be difficult to bring a camera into labs and other campus areas, they’d like help from you – the researchers – in getting the pictures shown to the world.

The social media team will regularly share your candid lab photos – preferably along with the corresponding context provided by researchers – on the official CU Anschutz Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.

There is no end date on when the team will stop accepting and sharing photos, so they encourage you all to share away!

Here’s why we want your photos:

  • To show not only our community, but the world, how incredible, hard-working and passionate you all are.
  • To elevate research stories and projects to hopefully make more connections and growth opportunities for the researchers and scientists.
  • To strengthen CU Anschutz’s overarching identity as a world-class research campus.
  • To help people better understand what scientific work looks like on our campus and offer a lens into early- and mid-stage research.
Lucas Ellison shared this photo of Lane Bushman and Pete Anderson using LCMS to quantify HIV medication in people’s blood.

Here’s how you can show us your photos:

  • Add #ShareYourResearch in your Facebook, Twitter or Instagram captions when you post the research picture
  • Tagging @CUAnschutz helps!

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Discovery could speed clinical translation of stem cell therapies

A team of scientists from the University of Colorado School of Medicine and the Charles C. Gates Center for Regenerative Medicine at CU Anschutz has reported a more efficient approach to reprogramming a patient’s diseased skin cells into stem cells, raising hopes for future clinical trials and potential cures for critical illnesses.

The results were published on Feb. 21, 2018 in Nature Communications.

The team is reporting a clinically safe approach that consistently reprograms healthy and disease-associated patient’s skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) with an unprecedented efficiency.

Dr. Dennis Roop, director of the Charles C. Gates Center for Regenerative Medicine.
Dennis Roop, PhD, director of the Charles C. Gates Center for Regenerative Medicine.

Since its initial discovery in 2006 by Shinya Yamanaka, MD, PhD, iPSC reprogramming technology has created considerable interest in the field of regenerative medicine for its potential of providing an unlimited source of patient-specific cells suitable for transplantation. This technology involves the reprograming of adult skin cells taken from a donor into immature embryonic stem cell-like iPSCs. These iPSCs can be grown outside the body, genetically manipulated, converted into a variety of adult cell types and then either transplanted back to the same patient as an autograft or used as a platform for drug screening and research.

Despite significant advances, current methods for reprogramming adult cells into iPSCs are extremely inefficient and inconsistent, with less than 1 out of every 500-1000 adult human cells becoming iPSCs. The low efficiency of these protocols, coupled with the length of time in culture, increase the chances of accumulating harmful mutations in iPSCs, thus compromising the safety of this technology for clinical applications.

To address the issue of low reprogramming efficiency, the team from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus optimized the cellular delivery of modified mRNAs, encoding several reprogramming factors in combination with microRNAs, and improved cell culturing conditions to enhance the growth of cells undergoing conversion into iPSCs.

“Many groups had previously attempted to improve reprogramming efficiency by identifying novel modulators of the process,” said Ganna Bilousova, PhD, an assistant professor of dermatology and one of the study’s lead scientists. “Instead of looking for new reprogramming enhancers, we took advantage of the versatility of RNA molecules to control the precise levels of reprogramming factors and microRNAs in cells during their conversion into iPSCs. We were surprised at how simple manipulations of the timing and dosing of the RNA molecules could affect the efficiency of reprogramming.”

The researchers showed that the fine-tuning of RNA delivery and cell culturing conditions dramatically enhanced the efficiency of reprogramming and improved the consistency of the process for disease-associated skin cells.

“Initiating reprogramming at a reduced cell density was critical for improving reprogramming efficiency in our study,” said Igor Kogut, PhD, an assistant professor of dermatology at the Gates Center. Kogut is also one of the paper’s lead authors. “There is a direct correlation between the rate of cell division and the efficiency of reprogramming. Our optimal, combinatorial RNA delivery regimen, which reduced the toxicity of the protocol, made it possible to initiate the process at a reduced cell density, down to individually-plated single cells.”

The goal now is to move the technology from the laboratory into clinical trials. Gates Center Director Dennis Roop, PhD, who is also one of the lead authors on the paper, recognizes the magnitude of the team’s work. He believes it holds great potential for the development of new corrective stem cell-based therapies for currently incurable diseases, such as Epidermolysis Bullosa (EB). Roop has had a long-standing interest in finding a permanent cure for EB, a group of inherited skin diseases that results in severe blistering and scarring. EB affects thousands of people across the United States and worldwide, and is characterized by chronic skin wounds similar in property to thermal burns, and indistinguishable from burns induced by chemical agents such as mustard gas.

“There are no effective therapies for EB, and iPSC technology provides an opportunity to develop a permanent corrective stem cell-based therapy for these severe skin-blistering diseases,” said Roop. “Our breakthrough in developing a highly-efficient reprogramming method, that avoids the use of viral vectors, may allow us to get FDA approval for one of the first iPSC-based clinical trials in the U.S..”

To accelerate getting iPSC-based therapies for EB into the clinic, the CU Anschutz team has established a consortium comprised of the University of Colorado, Stanford University (Anthony Oro, MD, PhD) and Columbia University (Angela Christiano, PhD).

The “EB iPS Cell Consortium” was initially supported by the EB Research Partnership (EBRP), the EB Medical Research Foundation, and the SOHANA Research Fund. More recently, the Consortium has received funding from the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases through the 21st Century Cures Act for the Regenerative Medicine Innovation Project, and the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine’s Partnering Opportunity for Translational Research Projects. The research teams at both Stanford and Columbia have adopted the University of Colorado’s reprogramming technology as the method of choice for generating patient-specific iPSCs for future clinical trials, and thus are setting the standards for future iPSC-based therapies for other diseases.

Prior to receiving the above sources of funding for the Consortium, this study was supported by additional funding from the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, the US Department of Defense, the Foundation for Ichthyosis & Related Skin Types, the Dystrophic Epidermolysis Bullosa Research Association (DEBRA) International, The King Baudouin Foundation’s Vlinderkindje Fund, the Linda Crnic Institute for Down Syndrome, the Gates Frontiers Fund and private donors.

Guest contributor: This article was contributed by Jill Cowperthwaite, Gates Center for Regenerative Medicine.

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Honor Society: A small dose of compassion goes a long way

In the end, his patient died. But as Ajay Major, MD, MBA, then an intern, flipped through the old veteran’s medical record, he found comfort in the memories the notes inspired.

Now Major, a second-year internal-medicine resident on the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, calls up those memories of the witty old man with terminal cancer who always asked for bourbon (and his devoted wife who always rolled her eyes in response) as a continual reminder of the importance of compassion in health care.

“Medicine is hard,” Major said. “We see a lot of patients with a lot of difficult medical issues, and I think burnout stems not just from feeling overworked, but also from feeling that we’re not truly caring for our patients on a human level.”

Major, co-president of the CU Anschutz School of Medicine (SOM) Resident Chapter of the Gold Humanism Honor Society, spread his message during the society’s annual Solidarity Week Feb. 12-16 by encouraging his colleagues to take part in the week’s centerpiece program, Tell Me More (TMM).

Changing the conversation

Dr. Griff with Cory
Megan Griff, MD, chats with University of Colorado Hospital patient Frances Cory as part of a program aimed at teaching the value of compassion in medicine.

Armed with a TMM questionnaire and a smile, second-year internal-medicine resident Megan Griff, MD, entered her patient’s room, finding Betty Redwine, 77, wrapped in a light blanket and relaxing in a chair. “Is it OK to talk and find out about your life?” Griff asked, after explaining the program and introducing Major and attending physician, Jeannette Guerrasio, MD.

“OK,” Betty Redwine said, returning her doctor’s smile. “But it’s nothing exciting,” she said, grinning up from beneath a black-suede, shower-like cap she informed her guests was taming her unruly hair.

Prompted by four TMM questions, Redwine soon was sharing pieces of her past. Topics of capillaries and high blood pressure gave way to children’s feats and life’s treasures, sounding more like tea-time chatter than hospital-room discussion. When Redwine let a little secret slip, the room exploded in utterances of disbelief.

“What?” Guerrasio said, after Redwine revealed she worked as a registered nurse for 35 years. “Why didn’t you tell us?” asked Griff. “My mom is a nurse, too,” Griff said, when the commotion subsided. “You guys are hard-workers,” she said, patting Redwine’s hand.

Staying centered on the cause

While it might seem miniscule, a small dose of compassion can result in an array of benefits, Major said.  “It allows the patient to feel that the care team really cares about them, but it also brings some catharsis for providers. Just finding out a little bit more about our patients’ lives outside of the hospital can help re-center us in the work that we are doing as physicians and, I believe, help prevent burnout.”

On the patient side, studies show compassionate healthcare results in higher patient satisfaction, a higher pain threshold, reduced anxiety and better outcomes, according to the Gold Foundation, which cites supporting studies on its website.

TMM team meets with nurse
Ajay Major, MD, MBA, left, and Jeannette Guerrasio, MD, right, talk with Anne Marie Fleming, RN, about the Tell Me More program.

“People develop diseases for lots of reasons, and everyone’s lives really affect the way they respond to health problems,” said SOM Chair of Medicine David Schwartz, MD. It makes sense that trusted patient-provider relationships result in better care, he said. “We need to know how their lives might be contributing to the development of disease, and how their lives might contribute to our ability to effectively treat their disease,” he said.

Remembering: ‘I’m a person’

Looking up from her bed as the TMM trio walked into her room, Frances Cory, 79, had them laughing before even agreeing to chat. “You want to talk beyond my medical condition? You mean you don’t care about my medical condition anymore?” said the mother and grandmother, who later responded to a question about her biggest strength: “My sense of humor.”

Cory, who shared with her visitors that she had served more than 5,000 volunteer hospital hours during her lifetime, said she thought the program was important. “It’s nice to know that you take the time to talk to your patients. I’m a person.”

The TMM program offers a valuable reminder for medical students that their patients are people, and not just medical mysteries to solve, Guerrasio said. “I actually, as a doctor, find these conversations really helpful. And it’s what makes me come to work every day.”

Notes about the patient-doctor chat are jotted down on the TMM questionnaire, which is then displayed on the wall so that everyone involved in that patient’s stay, from therapists and nurses to doctors and janitors, can use it as conversation fodder, Major said.

‘The more passionate individuals are about their profession, and the more they enjoy what they are doing, the more engaged they become. These things feed on each other in very positive ways.’   ̶   David Schwartz, SOM Chair of Medicine  

Seeing nothing as too small

By getting to know his end-stage cancer patient and his wife as an intern, Major learned not just about his patient’s bourbon routine, but that he was a strong war veteran who had “always been a fighter.” That helped Major, when the man opted for a late chemo-treatment that was questionable at his stage and age. While the patient fared well through therapy, he developed an infection afterward that ended his fight.

When his patient was transferred to hospice, Major told his palliative caregivers about the bourbon. As he looked through his patient’s medical record after learning of his death, Major was jolted by one caretaker directive: Bourbon, one ounce at bed time as needed.

“It seems like such a small detail,” said Major, who published an article in JAMA Oncology about the patient experience. “But when his fighting wasn’t working anymore, he started thinking about things he really enjoyed in life. And having his little bit of bourbon was kind of important to him. So we made sure he could have that to the end.”

 

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2018 Transforming Health Care Lecture Series Begins

Faculty presented on their efforts to create healthier workplaces

On February 9, the CU Anschutz Medical Campus held the first lecture of this year’s Transforming Health Care lecture series, an annual four-part event that highlights some of the many incredible advancements in health care taking place on campus. “Creating Healthier Workplaces: New Approaches to Employee Wellness,” was an opportunity for alumni, friends and community members to hear about the pioneering work of our outstanding faculty in the field of workplace well-being. The lineup of speakers included Lee Newman, MD, MA; Lili Tenney Starr, MPH and Matt Vogl, MPH.

Preventing chronic illness begins in the workplace

At the Center for Health, Work & Environment in the Colorado School of Public Health, Director Lee Newman and his team are partnering with businesses to improve population health by promoting health and safety in the workplace. “We’re spending most of our hours at work,” said Dr. Newman. “There’s an opportunity there to address health and well-being, health literacy and behaviors while helping employers keep their workers safe.”

The biggest and most costly health concerns, Dr. Newman shared, include chronic illnesses such as stress, depression, anxiety and drug addiction. The center is helping mitigate these issues through their training, research and public health practice initiatives that engage employers, occupational health and safety professionals, students and workers.

Another focus at the center is understanding how factors such as work-related injuries or chronic illness among employees impact their productivity. With these factors in consideration, employers can better fit the job to the worker, ensure workers do their jobs efficiently and safely and reduce costs.

Collaborating to build a culture of health and safety

Center for Health, Work & Environment Deputy Director Lili Tenney Starr explained how the center’s Health Links™ program is building a culture of health and safety in the workplace. The signature program is making this possible by cultivating an understanding of the links between human capital and sustainability in business leadership. Backed by the expertise of the center’s researchers and community advisors, the Health Links™ team provides assessments of organizations’ health and safety programs, and collaborates to create actionable goals that those organizations can pursue in order to create healthier workplaces.

A focus on small businesses allows Health Links™ to make a large impact on workplace health and safety in Colorado. The program has reached organizations in more than 30 counties and invested more than $80,000 in small businesses to advance their workplace health and safety programs and infrastructure. The Center for Health, Work & Environment is also currently developing the largest study of the actions small businesses are taking to impact worker productivity, health and well-being. The results will help the center improve how business leaders approach workplace health and safety programs in Colorado and beyond.

Educating future business leaders

Under the direction of Executive Director Matt Vogl, MPH, the National Mental Health Innovation Center (NMHIC) is working to change how business is addressing the ever growing mental health care needs of U.S. workers.

Vogl said, “Everyone is affected by mental health conditions in the workplace—it’s business leaders, teachers, dentists and other professionals. Everyone has a role to play in improving mental health in the workplace, including the CU system.”

As Colorado’s newest center dedicated to improving mental and behavioral health around the state and across the country, the NMHIC is delivering on that promise. The center’s partnership with CU Boulder’s Leeds School of Business focuses on building students’ knowledge of mental health in the workplace throughout campus academics and activities. In this way, the NMHIC hopes to help future business leaders understand the role mental health will play in their professional lives.

Part of this effort has involved sponsoring case competitions for undergraduates. These competitions challenge student teams to present solutions to complex business scenarios centered around mental health in the workplace. The NMHIC has sponsored two competitions during the 2016/17 school year, in which more than 700 students have participated to learn about and develop solutions to mental health cases.

Additionally, the NMHIC is working with Leeds to re-imagine standard business curriculum and introduce mental health in the workplace courses. With the oversight of the NMHIC, Leeds is currently pilot-testing seven different courses in the existing curriculum. NMHIC is in talks with MIT, the University of Denver and other universities, the NMHIC to replicate this program and  help an untold number of future business leaders prepare for potential mental health concerns in their workplaces.

These talented faculty and staff at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus are helping to ensure that happy and healthy workplaces are the norm. With this goal in mind, they are enhancing the physical and mental well-being of employees around the state, the region and beyond. Our faculty members’ successful programs are just a handful of the many exciting advancements taking place at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus.

The next event in the Transforming Health Care lecture series takes place Tuesday, May 15. “Harnessing the Immune System: The Next Medical Frontier,” invites attendees to learn about how our researchers are harnessing the power of the human immune system to prevent and fight disease.

For more information, or to RSVP, visit cuanschutzlecture.org.

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New security measures at CU Anschutz

Should the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus become a target of violence, a brand-new, state-of-the-art security system could save lives. Featuring panic buttons, frosted windows and blue-strobe lights, the new system will help secure safety – as long as everyone prepares for an emergency.

That’s the message of the University Police and supporting administrators as they roll out the new system that was authorized and funded by Senior Vice Chancellor Terri Carrothers and Chancellor Don Elliman last spring. 

Designed by Robin Brown, CU Anschutz director of electronic security, along with his deputy director, Kurt Proffitt, and other experts, the unique system’s first phase involved equipping 11 labs and 42 classrooms and lecture halls, in Education 1 and Education 2 buildings.

Equipped rooms

This is an example of a panic button, located in each equipped room.

Each equipped room has at least one panic button installed on the wall; if a teaching podium is present, a second button was installed at the podium. Each button is accompanied with guidance information posted on the wall. Pressing a panic button locks every security door in the corresponding building, although people inside can still get out.

“We wanted to give our campus members the option to evaluate their surroundings and make the best decision,” said University Police Chief Randy Repola. “Sometimes, that is to stay. Other times, that might be to leave.”

Only police officers with credentials will have badge access to the locked doors. Once a panic button activates the system, University Police will be notified. A blue-strobe light will activate inside all of the equipped rooms, as well as outside of the room where the button was pushed.

“We want to stress that this is to be used during an imminent threat, such as an active-harmer situation,” Repola said. “This button is not for typical police assistance. If anyone requires police assistance without an imminent threat, he or she should contact University Police by phone.”

‘We want our students to know that they can focus on their studies because we’ve got their backs.’ – Robin Brown, CU Anschutz director of electronic security

Equipped rooms also contain emergency trauma kits with severe-bleeding control supplies. An alarm sounds when the box is opened, notifying University Police.

Lastly, glass windows on doors have been reinforced and frosted, blocking the view from an outside active harmer and making the windows more difficult to break.

Make the call

Although the new security measures are a step toward a more-secure campus, a phone call during an emergency remains vital, Brown said.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

If you have any questions about the security system, please contact Wendy Grover at wendy.grover@ucdenver.edu

“The phone call is the most important part of this scenario,” he said. “It gives our officers the opportunity to learn about the threat. Complete communication is always better than just opening a box or pressing a button.”

Calls – and multiple calls – can give officers a more complete picture of the scenario and the amount of resources needed, Brown said.

There is also an important distinction between calling 911 and calling the University Police, said Wendy Grover, the police department’s communications director.

“Only Dial 911 if you are using a phone connected to a wall,” Grover said. “You should dial 303-724-4444 if you are using a cellphone. That way we can ensure that you will get in touch with University Police. If you dial 911 on your cellphone, you may get put through with the Aurora Police Department or another law enforcement agency which could slow down the appropriate response.”

University Police encourages people to spread the word about the new system.

“The security has hardened our buildings, and the officers have been trained,” Repola said. “Now, we need to educate our university population.”

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Former Olympian sets her sights on a new goal – becoming a surgeon

From throwing a hammer in Bird’s Nest Stadium in the 2008 Summer Olympics to studying to become a surgeon at CU Anschutz, former Olympian Loree Thornton is no stranger to pushing herself to the limits in pursuit of her dreams.

Since watching the 1996 Summer Olympics, Thornton knew that when she grew up she was going to be an Olympian. She didn’t know what her sport would be, but she envisioned competing in the games and meeting her teenage crush – a Russian gymnast. She went so far as to take four years of Russian in high school.

“I was like, ‘I need to speak Russian so I can meet him,’” Thornton shares with a laugh in an interview, “because, you know, I’d meet him and get married.”

She didn’t learn what her event would be until she was an undergraduate in college. One day, her track-and-field coach suggested she try the hammer throw.

“I was like, ‘Cool what’s that?’” Before that day, Thornton admits, she’d never heard of hammer throwing. The hammer isn’t a typical tool, but rather a metal ball that weighs about nine pounds. Attached to a steel wire, the ball gets swung above the head and released to fly across the field.

“I think it picked me,” she says of the sport she adores.

Breaking records

From then on, Thornton worked toward her goal of reaching the Olympics. At Colorado State University, she trained about four hours a day with her coach, going on to set a hammer-throw record.

“I broke the collegiate record – the furthest-throwing female to throw a hammer of all time,” says Thornton. “That’s why I think it chose me; I loved it.”

Loree Thornton swinging her hammer
Loree Thornton competes for the U.S. in the hammer throw.

In 2008, her dreams became a reality. She earned one of the three spots on the U.S. hammer throwing team for the Summer Olympics in Beijing. She admits that walking into Bird’s Nest Stadium was one of the most surreal experiences of her life. She had given over 10 years in pursuit a dream.

“You question yourself, you question the process, and then to walk into a stadium that’s vibrating with energy wearing USA across your chest is one of the best feelings,” she says. “I cried when I walked out. I thought, ‘all that work for this moment.’ It was pretty exciting.”

Connection to Winter Olympics

Even though Thornton participated in the Summer games, she is connected to the Winter Olympics. Some of her former track teammates went on to participate in bobsledding, and a former roommate from her first year of medical school is a gold-medalist speed skater.

Her favorite Winter Olympic sport to watch?

“I love figure skating. It’s really cool to see all those years of hard work come out so beautiful,” she says. “It’s where sport meets art.”

After the 2008 Olympics and four more years of throwing hammers, Thornton retired from competition in 2012 to chase another dream: to become a surgeon. Being a doctor had always been on her mind, but she had doubted her abilities – even after going to the Olympics.

“I came from a pretty underprivileged background. Saying you want to be a doctor is on par with saying you want to be an astronaut. People don’t do that, not people like you,” she says. If going to the Olympics taught Thornton anything, it’s that any dream, no matter how seemingly unattainable, can come true with enough hard work and dedication.

Sights on a new goal: surgeon

Thornton applied to medical schools and, upon hearing that she had been accepted into CU School of Medicine, she cancelled all other school appointments.

“I thought, ‘I got my number one choice – I’m done!’” she laughs.

Training to become a surgeon isn’t exactly like the long hours in the gym, but she is finding new ways to challenge herself to become the best-possible doctor. Thornton admits that when people suggest the kind of surgeon she should become – orthopedics is an oft-mentioned specialty – she thinks she wants to take a different path to prove them wrong. Whatever surgical route she chooses, Thornton continues to work tirelessly.

“There are some weeks where I get five hours of sleep a night. I’m getting my butt kicked, and I’m tired, but then I go into clinicals and I’ll learn about a disease in class and I’ll see it and feel like I’m helping a patient. That’s my favorite part: It reminds me of why we do what we do,” she says. “One day someone’s going to need the best of us.”

Thornton is currently in her second year of clinicals at CU Anschutz, on track to graduate with the class of 2020.

Similar to the way a sport picked her years ago, Thornton believes CU Anschutz likewise came calling.

“I feel happy where I am,” she said. “I’m supposed to be here.”

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Overcoming a health challenge and finding purpose

Seven years ago, Courtland Keteyian rolled into an operating room, excited by the prospect of running the way he once did as a star athlete on the track team in college. He imagined running on an outdoor trail and alongside gurneys in an emergency room.

Post-surgery, a few hours later, nurses wheeled him out of the operating room. He has been in a wheelchair ever since.

His surgeon made the operation sound fairly routine. A first-year resident at the time, studying emergency medicine, Keteyian was aware of the litany of things that can go wrong on the operating table. But he went in with confidence and assurances that the risks of the operation were minimal. He felt certain that his bothersome running injury would finally be healed.

But after this surgery, he could not even walk.

Finding meaning in work

Keteyian admits that dealing with the complications of his surgery was not easy. But instead of turning away from medicine, his desire to become a doctor grew stronger. He decided he wanted to become a different kind of doctor — one focused on prevention and who avoids unnecessary medical interventions as much as possible.

He finished his internship in emergency medicine and went on to complete his residency in preventive medicine at the University of Michigan. Today, he is an occupational and environmental medicine fellow at the Colorado School of Public Health (ColoradoSPH) on the CU Anschutz Medical Campus.

With BS, MD, MBA, and MPH degrees, experience as the CEO of his own startup company, and time spent as the medical director of a county health department under his belt, Keteyian brings a unique set of skills to the fellowship. He is the first fellow to matriculate into the program, one of the only one-year fellowships in the country that offers a path for physicians to become board certified in occupational medicine. The program was designed by faculty in the ColoradoSPH’s Center for Health, Work & Environment and is funded by the center’s Mountain & Plains Education and Research Center and an educational grant from Pinnacol Assurance, the largest workers’ compensation insurer in Colorado.

“I take a lot of pride in going to work each day. I think most people do. I wanted to work with people who experience disability and help them be functional at work so they can continue to experience that sense of value,” said Keteyian.

While his current career path is not exactly what he would have imagined as an intern at the University of Michigan, he has found purpose. Specializing in occupational medicine has offered him the opportunity to help others overcome their health challenges, get back to work, and hopefully regain the sense of identity that their job symbolizes.

Prevention-first approach

The fact that he was able to customize the program to fit his career goals, focus on his interest in prevention, and gain hands-on training in a clinical setting was a major draw of the fellowship.

When he is not treating patients, Keteyian is conducting research that will help prevent injuries and illnesses from occurring in the first place. Currently, he is investigating what factors cause repeat job-related injuries by analyzing workers’ compensation claims. He and his co-investigators in the Center for Heath, Work & Environment envision using the findings of this work to help employers and employees prevent repeat injuries, a topic that has not been studied extensively in the past.

“Seeing patients is important work, but it’s impact is mainly limited to the present,” said Keteyian. “It is critically important to understand why workers experience injuries and what can be done to prevent them. Research is essential to answer this question, and has the potential to improve health outcomes for workers long into the future.”

Connecting with patients who experience disability

Keteyian’s experiences as a frustrated patient and as a physician with a disability have informed both his research focus on prevention as well as his interactions with patients.

“Regardless of who the patient is, I think just seeing someone in a wheelchair can be very disarming for patients,” he said. “It can create a bridge that wasn’t there before. They think, ‘This guy gets it. He’s had some sort of challenge.’”

After years of hard work, Keteyian is now able to walk to some extent. But most of his time is spent in a wheelchair. The way Keteyian sees it, everyone will cope with disability in their lifetime in some way. Our ability to do everyday activities, on the job or at home, may change over time. Keteyian often conveys to patients that they are not alone in facing challenges and that they can still contribute to society, even if they need to adjust their work tasks or lifestyle to accommodate an illness or injury.

“Just because you have an injury or a disability doesn’t mean you can’t be very productive in other ways,” said Keteyian. “I treat patients and do research to contribute in ways that I feel are meaningful to society.”

The combination of Keteyian’s background in emergency medicine and his own personal health journey has led him down a career path focused on prevention and helping workers. He looks forward to continuing to build on his clinical and research expertise to move prevention-first approaches forward in the field of occupational and environmental medicine.

Learn more about the fellowship and how to apply. 

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Existing drug may be effective at preventing onset of type 1 diabetes

A drug commonly used to control high blood pressure may also help prevent the onset of Type 1 diabetes in up to 60 percent of those at risk for the disease, according to researchers at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and the University of Florida (UF) in Gainesville.

The study was published online this week in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

Dr. Aaron Michels of the Barbara Davis Center for Childhood Diabetes.
Dr. Aaron Michels of the Barbara Davis Center for Childhood Diabetes.

“This is the first personalized treatment for Type 1 diabetes prevention,” said Aaron Michels, MD, a researcher at the Barbara Davis Center for Childhood Diabetes and associate professor of medicine at CU Anschutz. “We made this discovery using a supercomputer, on the lab bench, in mice and in humans.”

The drug, methyldopa, has been used for over 50 years to treat high blood pressure in pregnant women and children. It is on the World Health Organization’s list of essential drugs.

But like many drugs used for one condition, Michels and his colleagues found it useful for something totally unrelated.

Molecule blocking

Some 60 percent of people at risk of getting Type 1 diabetes possess the DQ8 molecule which significantly increases the chance of getting the disease. The researchers believed that if they could block specifically the DQ8 molecule they could also block the onset of the disease.

“All drugs have off-target effects. If you take too much acetaminophen you can hurt your liver,” Michels said. “We took every FDA-approved small molecule drug and analyzed HLA-DQ8 binding through a supercomputer. We searched a thousand orientations for each drug to identify those that would fit within the DQ8 molecule binding groove.”

After running thousands of drugs through the supercomputer, they found that methyldopa not only blocked DQ8, but it didn’t harm the immune function of other cells like many immunosuppressant drugs do.

The research spanned 10 years and its efficacy was shown in mice and in 20 Type 1 diabetes patients who took part in a clinical trial at the Barbara Davis Center at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

“We can now predict with almost 100 percent accuracy who is likely to get Type 1 diabetes,” Michels said. “The goal with this drug is to delay or prevent the onset of the disease among those at risk.”

The drug is taken orally, three times a day.

Implications for treatment

Michels and UF Health researcher David Ostrov, PhD, hope this same approach of blocking specific molecules can be used in other diseases.

“This study has significant implications for treatment of diabetes and also other autoimmune diseases,” said Ostrov, associate professor of pathology, immunology and laboratory medicine in the UF College of Medicine and a member of the UF Health Cancer Center, Genetics Institute and Center for NeuroGenetics. “This study suggests that the same approach may be adapted to prevent autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, coeliac disease, multiple sclerosis, systemic lupus erythematosus and others.”

The next step will be a larger clinical trial sponsored by the National Institutes of Health in spring.

“With this drug, we can potentially prevent up to 60 percent of Type 1 diabetes in those at risk for the disease,” Michels said. “This is very significant development.”

The other authors include: Aimon Alkanani of the Barbara Davis Center at CU Anschutz; Kristen McDaniel of the Barbara Davis Center; David Ostrov of the University of Florida in Gainesville; Stephanie Case of the Barbara Davis Center; Erin Baschal of the Barbara Davis Center; Laura Pyle of the Barbara Davis Center and Colorado School of Public Health; Sam Ellis of the Barbara Davis Center and Dept. of Clinical Pharmacy at CU Anschutz; Bernadette Pollinger at the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research in Basel, Switzerland; Katherine Seidl at Novartis; Viral Shah at the Barbara Davis Center; Satish Garg at the Barbara Davis Center; Mark Atkinson at the University of Florida and Peter Gottlieb at the Barbara Davis Center.

 

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