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Vitiligo researcher pushes limits in lab and in life

Richard Spritz on South Georgia island
Richard Spritz, MD, making the Shackleton Traverse, a trek across South Georgia island.

Geneticist Richard Spritz, MD, likes to be on the edge. Spritz, the Director of the University of Colorado School of Medicine’s (SOM) Human Medical Genetics and Genomics Program, loves the rush he gets from pushing his vintage Porsche 911 around a racetrack. He hikes in the Himalayas, and spent his most recent vacation trekking across a remote island, following the footsteps of famous Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton.

A career spent in a laboratory might seem less exciting, but not for Spritz. While he once was an accomplished mountain climber and survived two avalanches while backcountry skiing, he says his passion is not for taking risks—it is for the thrill of doing something new.

“I think that science is an incredibly adventurous thing. You’re always pushing beyond what’s known,” Spritz said. “I’m not an adrenaline junkie. Other people might call me that. I’ve just always been attracted to adventurous things.”

In Spritz’s eyes, there have been few bigger adventures in recent decades than the quest to understand  genetics and use that knowledge to cure diseases. After more than 40 years, he still marvels at how his career unfolded, and how far the science has come.

Fateful decisions

Spritz, 66, is one of the world’s leading vitiligo researchers. For almost two decades, he’s been conducting groundbreaking work understanding the genetics behind the skin pigmentation disorder that causes white patches to appear on the face, body and hair. An estimated 50 million people worldwide have the condition.

Spritz didn’t set out to become a geneticist. Two decisions he made while he was still a self-described “brash young man” shaped the course of his career.

Richard Spritz car
Among Spritz’s hobbies is racing his vintage Porsche 911

Spritz is from Philadelphia, but he felt the mountains’ call at a young age, and he became an accomplished mountain climber in his youth. Successful ascents in the Alps, including the notoriously dangerous north face of the Eiger, earned him the respect of the climbing elite, and in the 1970s he was invited to join an expedition to climb Mount Everest.

Spritz declined because he was in medical school and did not want to disrupt his career. “I absolutely made the right choice,” he said.

“It’s mostly out of my system,” Spritz said. But he’s not through going on adventures, and last fall he hiked across South Georgia, an island near Antarctica. Peter Hillary and Jamling Tengzing Norgay, the sons of the first two men to climb Everest, were on the trek. They were filming a documentary for National Geographic about Shackleton, who had to cross the mountainous island to rescue his stranded crew. In the company of climbing royalty, it was natural to think about Everest, but Spritz saw the risk.

“I’m 66 years old. While I’m not like most 66-year-olds, I know I could get high enough to get into real trouble,” Spritz said. Now, he gets his thrills through amateur auto racing, which he points out is far safer than climbing or extreme skiing. His next trip will be to the Himalayas for another trek.

Spritz made his second career-defining decision “literally one day while walking down the street,” he said. He had planned to become a surgeon and had made arrangements to start down that path, but realized genetic research was a better fit for someone seeking to push scientific boundaries.

“I was incredibly lucky, because I did that at exactly the right moment in history, at the beginning of recombinant DNA research,” Spritz said. “I was lucky to get in on the ground floor.”

It led to a fruitful career. In the late 1970s, researchers were just discovering how to isolate, identify and sequence human genes. The biggest early discovery Spritz was part of was finding and sequencing a mutation that affects hemoglobin, the molecule that carries oxygen in the blood. It was the first time a mutation had been sequenced.

Still making discoveries

“Despite the fact that vitiligo has been known for hundreds of years, there’s never been a drug developed for it,” Spritz said. “That might change in the near future.”

Spritz has not stopped researching—or making discoveries. In October, Spritz and his lab published a paper in Nature Genetics finding 23 genes linked to susceptibility for vitiligo. The lab tested 4,680 people with the condition and 39,586 control cases. The study attracted the attention of pharmaceutical companies, which Spritz said is good news because a medication to treat vitiligo could be a major step forward from the current steroid and ultraviolet light treatments.

“Despite the fact that vitiligo has been known for hundreds of years, there’s never been a drug developed for it,” Spritz said. “That might change in the near future.”

Much more research would be needed before a drug could be developed, and then it would have to go through rounds of safety and efficacy testing. Spritz said enough work has been done that complex relationships between genes “are coming together in a way that kind of makes sense,” which has allowed vitiligo researchers to “leap frog” ahead faster than Spritz expected.

People with other conditions might benefit as well. In the mid-2000s, Spritz established that vitiligo was an autoimmune disease, in which the body attacks its own skin pigmentation cells. Research has shown people susceptible to vitiligo have increased odds of other autoimmune conditions such as Type I diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and Addison’s disease. Vitiligo research could lead to progress understanding those conditions, and vice versa.

That would be the next chapter in an ongoing scientific adventure.

“It’s amazing to me how far we’ve come, how naïve we were and yet how prescient we were at the same time,” Spritz said. “We are asking and answering the kinds of questions we couldn’t have imagined when I was a student. I think that’s incredibly inspirational – and we’ve hardly started.”

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Anowara Begum’s journey

Anowara Begum and three women from her village
Anowara Begum and three women from her village

Anowara Begum’s journey from a remote village in Bangladesh to the CU Anschutz Medical Campus is an inspiring tale of courage and determination. She enrolled in the Colorado School of Public Health after a chance conversation at a conference in Germany, which left her with a strong opinion about CU Anschutz.

“It will be a very supportive and accepting environment,” she said. “I can make a home away from home there.”

From Bangladesh to CU Anschutz

Women’s education is not a priority in Begum’s home village. The woman’s role is confined to cooking and raising children, and the cooking is completed inside using biomass fuels like grass, dung and leaves. Past research suggests that the smoke released from these types of fuels may lead to several types of respiratory diseases.

Anowara Begum
Anowara Begum in her home village

“I saw my mother cooking inside with different fuels like cow dung and straw,” Begum said. “She never questioned is the smoke from these fuels bad for me?”

Begum’s inquisitive nature led her to think about these health implications, and she envisioned that one day she could provide solutions. In order to follow her dream, she moved away from her family to a larger city in Bangladesh to complete her secondary education and undergraduate degree in Public Health.

After her undergraduate career, Begum was at a crossroads: Should she stay in Bangladesh? Should she go to another country to get more experience? She made her decision after a serendipitous encounter with a CU Anschutz student she met at a conference in Germany. Begum was enamored by the student’s amicable attitude. “I thought to myself, ‘Well, if this person is so nice from there, then maybe that place is nice as well,’” Begum explained.

She had never even visited the United States and yet, decided to make a leap of faith and apply exclusively to the Colorado School of Public Health.

Taking research back to Bangladesh

While studying at CU Anschutz, Begum realized a unique opportunity to cultivate her researching skills and passions. Ultimately, she wants to implement culturally appropriate public health solutions in Bangladesh.

Anowara Begum
Anowara Begum

“There is a great amount of research being done, but many researchers are missing that cultural appropriation aspect,” Begum said. “That part is the most important to me, because you can’t implement effective changes in public health unless you understand the big picture of the local culture.”

Begum believes she can change the way research has been applied in her home country because of her personal experiences growing up there. She believes her uniquely personal touch could make lasting impacts on communities in need. For her practicum, she was afforded the opportunity to apply her acquired skills by traveling back to Bangladesh.

In summer 2016, Begum received a grant to work with the University of Southern California to study biomass-fueled indoor air pollution exposure in Bangladesh. She helped develop culturally appropriate survey questions that consider regional specific housing characteristics. These considerations included the type of house the resident lives in, and what kind of stove they used.

The research was successful, but her real accomplishment lay in the new attitude of the women in her home village. She realized she had become a beacon of hope for other women in her village. “I am the first-generation woman with higher education in my family,” Begum said. “I realized when I went back home that I can be a role model beyond public health, that I can influence the society by showing how I am getting an education.”

That experience was overwhelmingly emotional for Begum. “I always said I would come back, but then I actually did,” she said. “It gave hope to the village to see me back.” It is Begum’s dream to return to Bangladesh after continuing her studies and practical training in Colorado.

A New Home in CU Anschutz

Begum’s experience at CU Anschutz has not only been rich in academics, but also in extracurricular activities. During orientation, the International Student Group approached her.  “I felt like I had known them for ages,” she said. “They guided me as an international student from the beginning. They hung out with me and kept me connected to campus. If I did not have that group, I would not be the person who I am today.”

Anowara Begum and women from the International Student Group
Anowara Begum and women from the International Student Group

Begum believes she must give back, so she now serves as president of the International Student Group. There are 50 members of international background and 20 members of domestic background. “Anyone who believes in diversity should be a part of this group,” she said. “You don’t have to be international; you just have to want friends.”

Begum’s determination led her to Colorado, and CU Anschutz provided her a beneficial, safe learning environment. She strongly believes that her experiences here will provide a great background to conduct future research in Bangladesh. “I’m very root-oriented,” she said. “I am drawn back to where I came from, my family. But I also have a great support system here; the professors and friends, they are family to me. They are going to be my lifelong friends. This is why I call it a home away from home.”

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Data Science to Patient Value initiative strives to maximize big data

Jean Kutner, MD
Jean Kutner, MD, is one of the leaders of the Data Science to Patient Value initiative

When Jean Kutner, MD, MSPH, provides care for patients, she wishes she could spend more time talking with patients about their health and the care they want to receive—and not spending her time on a computer, trying to sort through volumes of health records.

“That’s probably not a good use of our valuable and limited time together,” said Kutner, a general internist and palliative care specialist, chief medical officer of University of Colorado Hospital and associate dean for clinical affairs at the University of Colorado School of Medicine (SOM).

Despite her occasional frustration, Kutner is not against technology—far from it. She wants to unlock its potential to create effective care personalized for each patient.

Kutner co-leads the Data Science to Patient Value (D2V) initiative, a new multidisciplinary program at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. The initiative, supported with a $20 million grant from the SOM’s Transformational Research Funding program, has big ambitions.

“Our work could revolutionize how we think about how health care is provided, the patient experience, and how we make decisions,” Kutner said. “Our goal is to make CU Anschutz a leader in the intersection between data and value and the application of cutting-edge data science to the value equation.”

Personalizing big data

Right now, the volume of clinically relevant data in health records and from other sources can be overwhelming. Initiatives like D2V could fix that and develop technologies that create a new era in health care. Kutner thinks in the future supercomputers will help diagnose and treat patients, and that will lead to real improvements in their health and maximize the doctor-patient relationship.

“This is personalized medicine focused on a patient’s goals and values, and not necessarily on their genome,” Kutner said.

She gives the hypothetical example of a patient just discharged from the hospital. In a few years, a doctor could use an activity tracker like a Fitbit to see if the patient exercises and gets out of the house. The doctor would look for signs the patient is not recovering or has developed other health problems.

Kutner said the clinical team could see the data and reach out to the patient, checking on their status and, if necessary, asking the patient to come in to be evaluated. Before the visit, a supercomputer could analyze the patient’s data and compare it to data collected from tens of millions of other people. The analysis could create a personalized risk profile with suggestions for a custom treatment plan based on proven therapies. At the start of the next appointment, a doctor could see that information in single user-friendly dashboard.

“With all that data already synthesized, I could get the most value out of face-to-face time with a patient and help them make decisions about their treatment,” Kutner said. “That would be my ideal world.”

Physicians would still have important roles, Kutner said. The doctor and patient would use their time together to talk about what problems are arising and focus on their patients’ priorities. They would work together to get back on track.

Value from the patient’s perspective

While D2V is working on technological innovation in fields such as medical informatics, biostatistics and data visualization, Kutner said it also will address the more philosophical question of how to define value. It is not a simple question.

“If I’m a patient, I might define value differently than an insurer or a health care provider,” Kutner said. Patients can have unsatisfactory experiences despite being what doctors might consider success stories.

D2V will address that disconnect by including stakeholders such as patient advocates and experts in public health and the insurance industry. Kutner believes that will keep the project focused on the ultimate goal, which is improving care.

Building technology and a team

D2V started work in 2016 by recruiting experts from across CU Anschutz. Kutner wants to take advantage of CU Anschutz’s collaborative environment and current faculty members, researchers and staff.

“We have unique expertise here. We have outstanding data scientists. We have people who do world-leading work in care decision making and understanding stakeholder perspectives,” Kutner said. “We need to connect them behind a common goal.”

D2V also recruits researchers from around the world, with more people hired each month. Guest speakers from other leading institutions have given seminars to spark ideas.

Eight pilot projects are underway. They include a team trying to improve the databases that track children who have severe asthma attacks. That project’s goal is to test whether risk profiles can help create personalized predictions of when children might suffer attacks.

D2V will fund an additional six pilot projects in 2017 and is accepting project proposals through March 15.

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METHOD fitness app prescribes personalized exercise as medicine

The patient breathes harder as his workout intensifies. His metabolic fingerprint – heart rate, oxygen level and other data – streams onto a tablet in the form of a colorized digital bar that shows exactly what his muscles are doing and the fuels he’s burning.

Nicholas Edwards at CU Anschutz
Nicholas Edwards is the director of Exercise-Medicine Integration in the Department of Family Medicine at the CU School of Medicine.

“In the purple zone he’s stressing his anaerobic system, and in the red he’s going to burn muscle mass if he stays up there too long,” says Nicholas Edwards, director of Exercise-Medicine Integration in the Department of Family Medicine, CU School of Medicine. “The blue here represents his prime zone, where he performs best during exercise and creates the most energy, so he’s safely burning the most pound for pound right at this second.”

Edwards is also co-founder and chief scientific officer of METHOD, a CU spinoff company, that is proving to be a health game-changer by connecting exercise to medicine. The system gives thousands of pro athletes and patients access to individualized, real-time metabolic information that, when combined with a prescribed fitness regimen, builds strength and stamina, reduces injury, sheds weight and improves their response to treatment.

‘Medically based fitness plan’

METHOD app shows individualized biometric data
The METHOD app shows individualized, real-time metabolic information of athletes and patients.

These metabolic data points help tailor regimens to a specific physiology – whether the person be a pro athlete, weekend warrior or couch potato – to provide healthy outcomes across the continuum of care. “It’s literally like a medically based fitness plan,” says Edwards, who three years ago launched METHOD with an eye toward college and pro athletes. Among the first users were elite athletes who were patients in the Ascent Program at the Center for Dependency, Addiction, and Rehabilitation (CeDAR). The METHOD system has expanded to thousands of patients and athletes, including the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche, NFL teams as well as fitness facilities and centers for orthopedics and physical therapy from coast to coast.

Besides being a breakthrough approach –  making exercise a prescribed medicine – the METHOD app is a testament to the collaborative innovations regularly occurring on the CU Anschutz Medical Campus. Family Medicine owns a stake in the enterprise, which was assisted in its launch by CU Innovations. “We collaboratively worked on a system that covers the spectrum – orthopedics through physical therapy to human performance,” says Edwards, who has two business partners.

“Previously, there was nothing that quantified what a person in the gym, the rehab center or the weight room is doing metabolically in real-time,” he says. “Anaerobic exercise was a guess. Through METHOD, we’ve been able to identify somebody’s unique metabolic fingerprint to know what’s going on physiologically as they exercise.”

‘It’s been amazing’

Dan, a patient at UCHealth, went through the three stages of the METHOD system – evaluation, prescription for exercise, and monitoring – under Edwards’ supervision. Dan is a high-level crossfit competitor and works as a paramedic, so he understands the value of physiological data such as heart rate and energy thresholds. “Using the METHOD data, Nick built a training program specific to my capabilities that matched my heart rate and everything,” Dan says. “It’s been amazing. I’ve gotten stronger, faster and more physically fit in the last month and a half than I’ve done on my own, just kind of blind training, over the last year.”

‘This system really dials everything in.’– Nicholas Edwards, METHOD chief scientific officer

Meanwhile, people on the other end of the spectrum, the sedentary and obese, often tell Edwards they don’t know how to workout, feel pain when exercising or are simply intimidated. “The great thing about this system is we’re able to give them specific parameters to know exactly where they should exercise, the exact kind of exercise, and when to start and stop, so they change their body in a healthy and safe way,” he says. “This system really dials everything in.”

Because the app loads onto smartphones and synchs with heart rate monitors, it’s able to monitor whether a user is staying in a metabolic zone too long. “The phone will literally buzz and tell them to speed up or slow down their workout,” Edwards says. “The app has built-in coaching mechanisms across the board.”

‘Solidify best practices’

And the app acts as massive data repository that allows clinicians to view real-time data from users around the country. “I can monitor somebody on an exercise prescription in Maine or in Southern California and compare their outcomes to somebody here in Colorado,” says Edwards, who played college football at North Dakota State and is a former mixed martial professional. “Our goal is to solidify best practices over time.”

Colorado Avalanche and METHOD
The Colorado Avalanche use the METHOD system to monitor and analyze the metabolic fingerprint of each player in order to achieve optimum fitness.

Improved outcomes mean athletes get back on the ice or field faster, while patients, either those recovering from surgery or just going through physical therapy, return to their normal lives sooner, Edwards says. “The big payoff is that by optimizing patient outcomes we’re lowering the cost of care, because you’re eliminating guesswork and duplication of services.”

Ditching a worn-out formula

For example, METHOD renders obsolete the timeworn 220-minus-your-age formula for determining a person’s maximum heart rate. Edwards gives the example of a 55-year-old couch potato and a former pro hockey player of the same age. “If you do that old formula, they should exercise the exact same way, which is ludicrous,” he says. “We need to find something different that’s happening with that individual every single day, and that’s what we do with METHOD.”

When not directly coaching athletes and patients through exercise regimens, Edwards speaks about the benefits of METHOD and proper training across the U.S. at the NFL Combine, behavioral health and strength and conditioning conferences and other events. He notes that the system is “really starting to catch fire” as more people turn to individualized exercise regimens.

Edwards says METHOD will further elevate CU SOM’s stature as a global leader in innovation, wellness and health care outcomes. “We’re developing a lasting change – to make medicine and exercise collaborate long term.”

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Fighting opioid misuse by linking electronic health records, databases

Emergency Department staff
A pilot project at the University of Colorado School of Medicine is linking its electronic medical records to state prescription drug database.

Doctors should be able to rely on new technology to fight opioid misuse, University of Colorado School of Medicine (SOM) Assistant Professor Jason Hoppe, DO, believes. But so far, existing systems such as online databases that track prescriptions have not lived up to their promise.

Dr. Hoppe, an emergency room physician and medical toxicologist, wants that to change, and he thinks a pilot project at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus might be a step in the right direction. Hoppe and a team of physicians and software developers have linked the state’s online opioid prescription database, the Colorado Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PDMP), and University of Colorado Hospital’s electronic medical records system.

CU Anschutz fights the opioid epidemic

This is the third in a series of articles that examines how University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus faculty and students are finding ways to solve the opioid epidemic.

The new connection already saves doctors in the Emergency Department time. With a single click, physicians can see if a patient might be at risk for misuse, abuse or diversion of controlled medications, or if a patient might be going from provider to provider trying to get new prescriptions. It also could stop a doctor from prescribing medications that could be lethal when mixed with an opioid. So that single click could save a life or prevent or stop addiction, Hoppe said.

The federally funded project is an example of how CU Anschutz faculty and researchers could have a national impact on the opioid abuse epidemic. The project could lead to better software that helps doctors and hospitals across the country improve patient safety, identify people vulnerable to addiction, and stop prescription medication misuse.

Diagnosing a digital disconnect

Jason Hoppe
School of Medicine professor Jason Hoppe

Software that tracks prescription medications has been available for years. Since 2008, Colorado has had an online statewide database that records whenever a pharmacy dispenses a controlled substance. That includes opioids such as Vicodin and OxyContin, as well as other potentially addictive medications, such as stimulants like Adderall and benzodiazepines. Doctors and other health care providers can review a patient’s history before writing a prescription.

Hoppe said such databases could also be effective tools for identifying people who try to persuade multiple doctors to write prescriptions for opioids or addictive medications. Doctors could then refer them to treatment. Databases also can warn doctors if a patient takes a dangerous combination of medications, and in the future software could create risk profiles that could identify a patient susceptible to addiction.

“I think there are positives, and there is evidence that shows they improve patient safety,” Hoppe said. “But there are a lot of barriers to using it.”

Hoppe cited national statistics to support his view. Doctors only check the databases in their states 12 to 20 percent of the time before they write a prescription for a controlled substance.

“We would like to get that number a lot higher,” Hoppe said. He is in a position to help, as the co-chair of the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention’s working group focused on improving the database.

The critical element is time. Doctors need to quickly diagnose and treat patients while simultaneously reading and updating electronic medical records (EMR). Switching to a different software program to check the state database takes several steps and distracts both doctors and patients.

“If you’re in a busy primary care clinic or emergency department, and you’re seeing patients for only five minutes, and it takes you five minutes to load the system, you’re unlikely to use it,” Hoppe said. If doctors think a patient needs an opioid painkiller and do not see signs that raise concerns about possible misuse or abuse, they often write prescriptions without checking the state’s database. Then they have to move on to the next patient.

Testing the link

Opioid abuse by the numbers


329 people died in Colorado from misusing prescription opioids in 2015


224,000 Coloradans misuse prescription drugs each year


Colorado ranks 15th in the nation for opioid abuse—down from second in 2011

An obvious solution would be to integrate the state database and EMR systems. Hoppe said doing that took about a year. To overcome technical problems, the team worked with Epic, the software company that sells one of the most widely used EMR systems. UCHealth uses Epic’s software and is part of the project.

The initial rollout is small, Hoppe said, with doctors in the SOM’s Emergency Medicine Department and the University of Colorado Hospital being the first users.

“We have to see how it does, how people like it, and if we can make it solvent in terms of cost,” Hoppe said. The U.S. Department of Justice funded the pilot project, and the software will have to show results before receiving more financial support.

Users at CU Anschutz like the system so far, Hoppe said, and it already has made his job easier.

“I use it for 90 percent of patients now that it’s just one click,” he said.

Ultimately, Hoppe would like to see the system or a similar one used nationally, but it won’t happen overnight. He said it could take several years and millions of dollars before every hospital and doctor’s office has quick access to their state’s prescription drug database. Health care providers will need to find money for an expensive upgrade. They also will have to work with many software companies to overcome the challenges of connecting hundreds of systems.

But Hoppe remains optimistic. Doctors need a system that works better, and the severity of the opioid epidemic provides urgency. The software CU Anschutz helped develop and the lessons learned from the pilot program could cut the number of opioid addictions, save lives and help end a crisis.

“There’s a lot of pressure to integrate these systems,” he said. “This gives us a big tool to help.”

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Middle schoolers dissect brains, peer into healthcare careers

Student outreach at CU Anschutz
Students and teachers at West Leadership Academy visit CU Anschutz as part of the WeLLCOMe Program.

As soon as 20 middle school students step into the hall and put on white lab coats and glasses, a noticeable change comes over them. There’s a sense of confidence, of feeling important.

“It feels like I’m a scientist,” Denajsha Vialpando says while flashing a smile. “It just feels like I’m working here, like I’m a medical student.” Another eighth-grader, Jacqueline Tarin, adds, “I feel like I’m in health care training. When I grow up I want to dissect brains and stuff like that.”

Just down the hall in the “bone room,” they will perform a cranial nerve exam, slice away slivers of brain, and study the three-dimensional images of the Visible Human.

This hands-on exploration of science, health and health careers is the idea of the WeLL-COMe Program at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. WeLL-COMe stands for Wellness, Lifelong Learning and Career Orientation Mentorship, and it’s geared toward middle-school students.

The program is a collaboration between the Department of Neurology, the Department of Cell & Developmental Biology, the master’s program in Modern Human Anatomy – all within the CU School of Medicine (SOM) – and Colorado Uplift, a nonprofit that provides guidance to underrepresented minority students. This spring, six waves of students from Denver and Aurora schools will participate, touring in groups of 10 to 25 students.

‘Change in their mindset’

On a recent morning, the group from Denver’s West Leadership Academy tours the anatomy labs on the fifth floor of Education 1. They are led through various health stations, including the brain dissection room, by several graduate-student volunteers from the Modern Human Anatomy program.

Brain lab at CU Anschutz
Maureen Stabio, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Cell & Developmental Biology, hands students from West Leadership Academy parts of a human brain to inspect.

The group starts with an introductory lesson in neurons and brain plasticity. “We teach the students that their brains have enormous capacity to learn and change. Through practice and hard work, they can do science,” says Maureen Stabio, PhD, assistant professor in the SOM’s Department of Cell & Developmental Biology. “I think that change in their mindset is important.”

Hannah Benjamin, an anatomy graduate student, enjoys volunteering for the outreach sessions because they blend two of her passions – working with kids and studying human anatomy. “My favorite part is getting in the labs and doing hands-on work, because I don’t think this kind of opportunity is as available for middle school students as it is for high school students,” Benjamin says. “Watching their faces when they pick up a brain makes my day.”

Students in bone room at CU Anschutz
Denajsha Vialpando, left, a student at West Leadership Academy, and fellow student Jacqueline Tarin, right, perform a cranial nerve exam along with a teacher from the academy, in the bone room in Education 1 at CU Anschutz.

She says the students are especially fascinated by the brain slicing and cranial nerve demonstrations. When Vialpando steps up to cranial nerve station, she’s repulsed and fascinated at the same time. “Oh my God, are those eyes?!” she exclaims as she grasps the eyeballs dangling from slender nerves. In her next breath, the eighth-grader asks the graduate student, “What’s this black thing?” as she points to a blood vessel at the base of a brain.

“It’s squishy,” another student observes as he touches the gray matter.

Opening doors to science

Veronica Contreras de Raya, marketing and communications coordinator for Colorado Uplift, says the CU Anschutz outings leave a profound impression. “A lot of kids don’t consider a future in math or science as a possibility, so this kind of hands-on experience can really open doors,” she says.

Colorado Uplift is an essential collaborator for the program, says Alina Rich, education manager in the Department of Neurology, since the organization has strong connections to schools across Denver and Aurora.

In fact, the 3-year-old WeLL-COMe program, which is funded by the Maggie George Foundation, this year expanded to include Aurora Public Schools, joining Denver Public Schools students in the lab rotations.

Benjamin, who helped develop the outreach curriculum, has been accepted into the CU SOM for fall 2017. She’s delighted that she will be able to continue promoting healthy lifestyles and interest in health professions among middle school students.

“Hopefully some of them will walk out of here wanting to wear a lab coat again and be a doctor, nurse or other health care professional someday,” Benjamin says.

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College of Nursing program ranked in top 10 by U.S. News & World Report

The CU College of Nursing was ranked among the top ten nationally in Best Online Nursing Programs, according to a report released today by US News & World Report.

Spring 2014 commencement, College of Nursing, University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.
Spring 2014 commencement, College of Nursing, University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.

The College of Nursing at the Anschutz Medical Campus scored ninth in the report’s online nursing program category among the nation’s masters degree-granting institutions. Among nursing programs in Colorado, only CU Anschutz earned ranked scores in this category.

“The CU College of Nursing is proud to be among the top ten nationally ranked online graduate nursing programs,” said dean and professor Sarah Thompson, PhD, RN, FAAN. “This recognition reflects the commitment and savviness of our faculty, as well as the diligence and brilliance of our students. Our College has employed skilled distance educators for nearly two decades, and we look forward to continuing as forerunners in the delivery of excellent online nursing education.”

Distance educator Diane Skiba, PhD, professor and specialty director of health care informatics at the CU College of Nursing, said the distinguished recognition reflects the institution’s rich history of providing online programs to nursing students, which it has offered since 1998.

US News only ranked such programs offered 100 percent online; blended programs that combine teaching in brick-and-mortar classrooms and online education were not included in the rankings.

“Our dedicated faculty have designed online programs are that learner-centric and based on best practices,” Skiba said. “Faculty continuously modify their online courses to leverage new technologies and the latest research in the field of online learning.”

Programs were ranked using key factors including faculty credentials and training, student engagement, admissions selectivity, peer reputation and student services and technology. U.S. News has ranked distance education programs for six years and believes online learning is becoming integral to all types of education and that consumers are hungry for information related to online degrees.




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The advantages of getting a PhD

Wes Blakeslee at work at RxREVU
Wes Blakeslee at work at RxREVU

For students who are considering graduate work that will culminate with a PhD, the question is unavoidable: What will I do with my degree?

In some circles, it’s expected that a person with a PhD will teach the next generation of graduate students, perhaps while continuing to do research. While that is sometimes the case, graduate students also have many other ways they can achieve professional success with their degrees.

Wes Blakeslee, PhD, and Rui Xiong, PhD, both hold advanced degrees from the Graduate School at CU Anschutz. Both have gone on to exciting and fulfilling careers outside academia—one in industry and one in government.

Wes Blakeslee

“I considered the classic tenure-track faculty path for a hot second,” Blakeslee said. “But my career aspirations have always been more entrepreneurial, and would only be satisfied by joining a company.”

Today, Blakeslee serves as Director of Clinical Pharmacology at RxREVU, a health information technology company. He believes he was uniquely qualified for the position because he earned a PhD in Pharmacology.

His success at finding a job he “loves” was no accident. As early as his undergraduate days at CU Boulder, he made the decision to take a “gap year” and work in an academic laboratory before heading to graduate school to make sure it was the right next step. He saw two clear hurdles—one, the “five or six years of my life” that it would take to complete his degree. The other was the inherent risks of doing research.

“Research isn’t for everybody,” Blakeslee said. “I had to be sure I had the temperament to handle the ups and downs, knowing that the successes are worth the time you are investing and the failure you will undoubtedly experience.”

That gap year spent working as a professional research assistant helped Blakeslee gauge his appetite for graduate school. Eventually, he “made peace with the hurdles.” He applied to four schools, including CU Anschutz, and discovered during interviews in California, Iowa and Florida that CU Anschutz provided a unique culture for graduate students.

“This is a school with good people and an environment that helps hold your spirits up,” he said. “Academic science is intensely competitive, and here you are surrounded by people who work hard but also know how to enjoy their free time.”

From CU Anschutz to RxREVU

Blakeslee spent his graduate years at CU Anschutz in the School of Medicine laboratory of Timothy McKinsey, PhD, studying the molecular mechanisms of heart failure.

The work in the lab carried important clinical implications, but Blakeslee also started marketing his biomedical skills in the business world outside the Anschutz Medical Campus. Inspired by Associate Dean of the Graduate School Inge Wefes, PhD, and CU Anschutz Emeritus Professor Arlen Meyers, MD, he followed his passion for a career in industry. He met the CEO of RxREVU at a local networking event and “bugged” him until he was brought on as an intern. After he completed his degree, the internship turned into a full-time position.

RxREVU’s Prescription Decision Support tool is a digital platform that enables prescribing providers to see the best and latest cost- and evidence-based information about individual patient’s medications, integrated into electronic health records and directly embedded in the clinical workflow.

“The goal of the platform is to enable every stakeholder to win,” Blakeslee said with undisguised enthusiasm for the start-up company. “Providers can improve outcomes, patients can take control of their own care and ideally have lower out-of-pocket costs, and payers can see greater value in their health plans.”

When Blakeslee started graduate school, he admits he wasn’t sure where he was headed and sometimes asked himself if the investment was a good one. Now he has the answer.

“It was a good investment in my future,” he said. “Someday, I could see myself returning to academia to teach, but that would only be after gaining invaluable experience from my career in industry to help guide the next generation of scientists.”

Rui Xiong

Rui Xiong
Rui Xiong

Rui Xiong had never even visited the United States before she arrived at the Graduate School at CU Anschutz. Her first impression of this country reflects Colorado’s topography. “There are lots of mountains,” she said. “I like to hike, so I started hiking fourteeners!”

Today, in her position with the National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR) in Jefferson, Ark., Xiong won’t have local fourteeners to hike, but she has found post-doctoral success and fulfillment working for the United States government.

Xiong’s connection to Denver started in her hometown of Kunming, in southwest China.  Kunming and Denver are sister cities, both located at mile-high altitudes. She followed a cousin who was already doing graduate work at CU Anschutz.

While working on her PhD, she did research in the lab of David Ross, PhD, chair of the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences in the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences. Her research examined the toxicity of environmental relevant quinones. She describes Ross as a “mentor” and “role model” who helped her as she began to consider what her next steps would be after completing her PhD.

“I didn’t think I was ready to teach,” she said. “I wanted to apply my research to real-life  problems and have an impact on public health.”

From CU Anschutz to the FDA

The NCTR is the only Food and Drug Administration (FDA) center located outside the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. There Xiong has joined a cadre of scientists conducting research which generates data for FDA decision-making and develops and supports innovative tools and approaches that the FDA uses to protect and promote individual and public health.

Xiong is doing inhalation-related toxicology studies designed to evaluate tobacco products that may contribute to smoking-related diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer. She describes the professional environment at NCTR as “friendly and collaborative,” a place where people share their expertise. It is a great place to work, she believes, and it’s a position she earned with the hard work and many years she invested in her PhD studies.

“It’s a good idea to get a PhD,” she said. “I definitely benefited from my graduate training. It made me more logical, a better critical thinker, more mature and more efficient.”


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CU Pre-Health Scholars Program’s Community Strengthening Project

CUPS high-school student
CUPS high school student

A select group of young adults with an interest in pursuing health careers receive an introduction to the many diverse opportunities available to them through the CU Pre-Health Scholars Program (CUPS) at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora while they’re still in middle school and high school. The program often takes the students beyond the classroom into the community providing some highly impactful experiences. A Community Strengthening Project provided by the CUPS students to the Comitis Crisis Center near CU Anschutz, in conjunction with the CU Anschutz Medical Campus Office of Inclusion and Outreach, CU School of Dental Medicine’s American Student Dental Association Colorado Chapter, CU Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences and Walgreens Pharmacy, included a pancake breakfast, along with free flu shots and take-care bags for center clients. The Comitis Crisis Center provides a safe shelter for individuals and families that find themselves homeless. In addition, the center offers visitors ways to rebuild their lives, support with family emergency housing shelter, daily meals, emergency cold weather shelter 24/7, mental health and substance abuse treatment.

The CUPS junior & senior high school students from around the Denver/Aurora metro area had the opportunity to serve pancakes, sausage, and orange juice to over 40 guests from the Comitis Crisis Center. CUPS participants played volleyball, football, and did crafts with the children.

A Walgreens pharmacist, along with two CU Pharmacy students, administered over 25 free flu shots to guests 7 years old or older.

CUPS high-school students
CUPS high school students
CUPS high-school students
CUPS high school students

Daisy Chapa, a senior from Overland High School and the CUPS class president, said, “It’s incredibly rare that students get an opportunity to sit down with homeless individuals and learn about their background and experiences.” The primary objective for the CUPS participants is to engage them in community service while learning more about the health disparities among the homeless population. In addition to flu shots and pancakes, CUPS participants gathered and donated hygiene items and created take-care bags for children, men, and women. Bags included items such as winter socks, feminine products, soap, lotion, toothbrushes and toothpaste.

Chapa continues, “I had envisioned middle-aged men with drug problems or mentally ill dependents; instead, we met families with tiny children and single parents. Some of these children were happy with their lives despite not having a home to live in or any material goods. They improvised with what they had and saw themselves as no less than anyone else, which is a mindset that even many grown adults fail to adapt to. Having the opportunity to meet with and interact with these individuals showed me to be grateful for what I have and, one day, I will work towards helping those who have fallen on hard times.”

CUPS Program Director Abenicio Rael said, “This was an eye opening experience for many of our students as well as our staff and myself. It reminded me of my own privileges and how to be aware of them before imposing them on others unconsciously.”

“The Anschutz Medical Campus Office of Inclusion and Outreach has done many wonderful things for my pre-collegiate group from exposing us to cadaver-based anatomy to professionalism in the academic world”, said Chapa. “But, the greatest thing they have ever done is remind us to be humble and human by not getting carried away with ignorance or selfishness. The pancake breakfast served as a reality check for some of us, for others, it was a reminder that we are all humans struggling to find one thing- happiness.”

Guest Contributor: Dominic F. Martinez, Ed.D., Senior Director of the CU Anschutz Medical Campus Office of Inclusion and Outreach

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The Turtle Project

Volunteers help Matthews transport donations.

Volunteers help Matthews transport donations.



As a scientist, Shawna Matthews, PhD, was used to spotting problems and searching for solutions. But when she became concerned about the people experiencing homelessness in her community, the last place she expected to find a solution was in her daily commute to work.

Shawna Matthews

Shawna Matthews

In fall 2015, Matthews began a postdoctoral fellowship researching breast cancer metabolism in the Department of Pathology at the CU School of Medicine la viagra se vende sin receta. She noticed that her new commute required her to carry a lot of stuff between home and the Anschutz Medical Campus. “I left the house every day with a minimum of four bags,” she said. “And throughout the day, I seemed to accumulate more.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum were homeless veterans visiting the Mile High Behavioral Health Center on campus. Matthews observed them struggling to carry all of their possessions. “The contrast struck me and I wanted to do something about it.”

Connecting the campus to the community

Matthews had been looking for an opportunity to engage with her new campus. Her volunteer experience up until then was limited to acting as a science fair judge. But as she encountered the vets on campus and other experiencing homelessness in Aurora, she wondered how she could help.

The solution arrived via social media. On Facebook, Matthews saw her cousin in North Dakota was offering her acupuncture clinic as a drop-off site for the Turtle Project, a campaign that gathers and distributes backpacks and bags for the homeless.

The Facebook post resonated with her. “I sensed that this project could make a difference here,” she said. “My instinct was that CU Anschutz could pool the resources (and excess bags) that we have as scientists to help a population in our immediate community.”

Carrying their homes on their backs

The Turtle Project accepts donations of bags and filler items.

The Turtle Project accepts donations of bags and filler items.

Last fall, Matthews looked into the background of the Turtle Project and learned that the campaign’s name of the campaign refers to the fact that, like turtles, people experiencing homelessness carry their homes with them. The original Turtle Project began in North Dakota, when Fargo resident Whitney Fear learned that the homeless were receiving donations but didn’t have a place to keep their things.

The relevancy of this problem struck a chord with Matthews. “Providing resources only addresses part of the problem,” she said. “People experiencing homelessness also need a way to carry their stuff, and to keep their possessions secure.”

With cooler weather and the holidays approaching, Matthews quickly organized her own Turtle Project at CU Anschutz. She put out a call for bags, personal care supplies and lightweight nonperishable food items. She connected with the Comitis Crisis Center, a division of Mile High Behavioral Healthcare, to receive the bags and distribute them to their clients.

Donate a bag, backpack or supplies to the Turtle Project

Between now and mid-January, the Turtle Project aims to collect at least 200 bags, backpacks, and suitcases.

For more information about drop-off sites on the CU Anschutz campus, or for charitable contribution tax forms, please contact

The project was a success. Matthews donated 98 bags to Comitis, whose homeless clients reported loving the bags. At each distribution event, there was more demand than supply, and those clients who didn’t receive a bag looked forward to the next delivery. Purses were especially popular. “The female clients were so excited,” Matthews said. “It’s fun getting a new purse.”

Turtle Project 2016

Matthews’ first campaign for the Turtle Project was such a success that she is organizing the project again this year. With additional volunteers, new drop-off locations, and increased storage space, she hopes to double the size of the collection. As of this writing, she had collected 35 bags in just a few weeks.

For those interested in helping, the project is soliciting donations of new or used bags, backpacks, large purses, conference bags, satchels and wheeled suitcases. These bags can be empty, or they can be pre-filled with small, useful items, such as hotel soaps, toothpaste, toothbrushes, razors, Q-tips, hats, socks, gloves, small flashlights with batteries, ponchos and lightweight nonperishable food, such as granola bars or trail mix.

Other useful donations include items that provide some entertainment, such as playing cards, pen and paper, paperback books and puzzle books. The Turtle Project accepts these filler items, which it can use to stuff empty donated bags.

Seeing the unseen

For Matthews, the project has been a way to connect with her neighbors and co-workers by sharing resources, as well as to acknowledge and help often overlooked members of the community. She’s stepped outside of her comfort zone, but the results have been worth it.

“In academia, you can sometimes feel like you are a small spoke in a very large wheel,” she said. “I think the same thing happens to the homeless. The Turtle Project is a way of saying that we see each other.”


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