Michael Birrer, M.D., Ph.D., Named UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute Director

Michael Birrer

Michael J. Birrer, M.D., Ph.D., will join the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute as director by the end of 2019.

| LITTLE ROCK — Internationally recognized medical oncologist Michael Birrer, M.D., Ph.D., has been named vice chancellor and director of the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS). Birrer specializes in gynecologic cancers and will join the university by the end of the year.

He formerly served as director of the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Birrer succeeds Laura Hutchins, M.D., who served as interim director of the UAMS Cancer Institute since June 2018.

“It is an honor to welcome Dr. Birrer as the new director of the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute. As a highly regarded physician-scientist, Dr. Birrer is uniquely qualified to increase the Cancer Institute’s capacity for innovative research and advanced clinical care in the years ahead,” said UAMS Chancellor Cam Patterson, M.D., MBA.

As director of the UAMS Cancer Institute, Birrer will lead all cancer-related activities for UAMS, whose cancer clinics reported more than 150,000 patient visits during the last fiscal year. There are about 150 UAMS faculty members engaged in cancer-related research and clinical activities.

“I left a professorship at Harvard Medical School in an attempt to help a broader number of patients suffering from cancer. This position at UAMS will allow me to do that for cancer patients throughout Arkansas,” said Birrer, who also will hold the position of Cancer Service Line director.

“Dr. Birrer possesses the strong leadership experience needed to move the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute toward the goal of achieving designation by the National Cancer Institute,” said Christopher Westfall, M.D., executive vice chancellor and dean of the UAMS College of Medicine. “He will no doubt be an outstanding addition to the Cancer Institute and to UAMS as a whole.”

NCI Designation is awarded through a highly competitive assessment process during which cancer centers must demonstrate outstanding depth and breadth of high-quality cancer research. Receiving designation brings substantial benefits, including the ability to access federal research funding and offer clinical trials not available to non-designated centers. It also is expected to result in a $72 million economic impact on Arkansas and create about 1,500 new jobs over five years.

In support of the Cancer Institute’s efforts of achieve NCI Designation, the Arkansas House and Senate unanimously passed in March 2019 Senate Bill 151, which established an account into which funds supporting NCI Designation could be deposited.

Then, with the support of Gov. Asa Hutchinson, an annual amount of at least $10 million was designated for efforts related to the institute’s quest for designation. The funds will be used to recruit top grant-funded scientists to bring their research dollars to UAMS to meet the requirements set by the NCI.

“Given the state support, UAMS and philanthropic support, we estimate a $70 million investment over the next five years in the Cancer Institute, which will strengthen our chance at NCI designation,” said Birrer.

“We look forward to working hand in hand with Dr. Birrer to ensure the Cancer Institute is actively serving the cancer care needs of all Arkansans, while also pursuing dynamic and forward-thinking research,” said Steppe Mette, M.D., interim vice chancellor for clinical programs and chief executive officer of the UAMS Medical Center. Mette served as chair of the director search committee.

“As I step down as Cancer Institute interim director, I am confident Dr. Birrer has the skills and desire to advance our mission and move the institute forward in many vital areas,” Hutchins said.

Birrer completed his medical degree and doctorate of philosophy in 1982 in the Medical Scientist Training Program at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. Following a medical internship and residency at Massachusetts General Hospital, Birrer entered the Medical Oncology Fellowship program at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland. After his fellowship, Birrer was appointed senior investigator (with tenure) and established the molecular mechanism section in the Division of Cancer Prevention and Control.

In 2008, Birrer was appointed professor of medicine at the Harvard School of Medicine and assumed the position of director for both Gynecologic Medical Oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Gynecologic Oncology Research Program at the Dana Farber/Harvard Cancer Center.

In 2017, he accepted the position of director of the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he served as professor of medicine, pathology and OB-GYN.

Recognized nationally and internationally as an expert in gynecologic oncology, Birrer’s primary research interest is in characterizing the genomics of gynecologic cancers to improve the clinical management of these diseases. His clinical interests include ovarian cancer, endometrial cancer and cervical cancer.

Birrer has approximately 400 publications, including peer-reviewed manuscripts, book chapters and review articles. He served as chair and chair emeritus of the Department of Defense Ovarian Cancer Research Program, chair of the Committee for Experimental Medicine of the Gynecologic Oncology Group, chair of the Translational Science Working Group of the Gynecologic Cancer Intergroup, and a member of the Gynecologic Cancer Steering Committee.


UAMS is the state's only health sciences university, with colleges of Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy, Health Professions and Public Health; a graduate school; hospital; a main campus in Little Rock; a Northwest Arkansas regional campus in Fayetteville; a statewide network of regional campuses; and seven institutes: the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, Jackson T. Stephens Spine & Neurosciences Institute, Harvey & Bernice Jones Eye Institute, Psychiatric Research Institute, Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging, Translational Research Institute and Institute for Digital Health & Innovation. UAMS includes UAMS Health, a statewide health system that encompasses all of UAMS' clinical enterprise including its hospital, regional clinics and clinics it operates or staffs in cooperation with other providers. UAMS is the only adult Level 1 trauma center in the state. U.S. News & World Report named UAMS Medical Center the state's Best Hospital; ranked its ear, nose and throat program among the top 50 nationwide; and named six areas as high performing — cancer, colon cancer surgery, heart failure, hip replacement, knee replacement and lung cancer surgery. UAMS has 2,727 students, 870 medical residents and five dental residents. It is the state's largest public employer with more than 10,000 employees, including 1,200 physicians who provide care to patients at UAMS, its regional campuses, Arkansas Childrens Hospital, the VA Medical Center and Baptist Health. Visit www.uams.edu or www.uamshealth.com. Find us on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Instagram.

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Grateful Cancer Patient Pedals to Promote Myeloma Center

David Sutton of St. Petersburg, Florida, recently completed a five-day bike ride to raise $7,000 for the Myeloma Center.

David Sutton of St. Petersburg, Florida, recently completed a five-day bike ride to raise $7,000 for the Myeloma Center.

| David Sutton of St. Petersburg, Florida, was 42 and had an 18-month-old son when, on New Year’s Eve of 2004, he was diagnosed with myeloma and given a bleak prognosis from a cancer treatment center near his home.

In response, his local oncologist sent him to the UAMS Myeloma Center for a second opinion.

“I loved the doctors’ warm patient-oriented approach and decided to travel to Little Rock for treatment instead of being treated closer to home,” Sutton said. Following a tandem transplant at UAMS and treatment using the Total Therapy 3 protocol, Sutton spent nearly a decade in remission before relapsing in 2014.

After further treatment, Sutton, now 57, is in complete remission and his son is 16 years old. He travels to Little Rock every six months for check-ups with Frits van Rhee, M.D., Ph.D.

“I was overwhelmed by the facilities available there and so appreciate how, aside from being one of the world’s leading institutions for myeloma treatment, everyone there from top to bottom believed in the mission and knew it was making a big difference in a lot of people’s lives,” Sutton said.

David Sutton of St. Petersburg, Florida, recently completed a five-day bike ride to raise $7,000 for the Myeloma Center.

Grateful for the additional years the Myeloma Center has provided, the financial analyst and managing director at Raymond James & Associates in Saint Petersburg, he wanted to give back. The vehicle he used? A bike he takes on a long ride nearly every year.

Before his five-day trip this past October, Sutton sent emails to friends, relatives and colleagues seeking donations.

Through the ride, he covered 208 miles, climbed 17,100 feet and raised $7,000 for the Myeloma Center to help increase awareness of and assist in treatment of myeloma and Castleman disease,  another disease his doctor specializes in treating.

He rode from the coal country border of Virginia and West Virginia to North Carolina with longtime cycling friend Frank Liccardo. The ride concluded in Surry County, North Carolina, near Mount Airy, the model for the fictional town of Mayberry, featured in the Andy Griffith Show 1960s TV comedy.

The weather was nice except for rain the first day.

“We planned to begin the ride at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg but instead drove 100 miles west to avoid the weather front,” Sutton said. The change shortened the first day’s ride time to 22 miles and led to them ride further south into West Virginia.

“There wasn’t a lot of traffic through there and certainly not a lot of cyclists,” Sutton said.

“All the houses were really close to the road and no one keeps their dogs on leash. We quickly had to recall our skills of riding uphill with one hand swinging the bike from side to side while spraying water with the other in order to keep all the loose dogs at bay,” he said. “It made for a short but stressful first day.”

In North Carolina, both the weather and canine conditions improved.

“For the most part, we had some great riding in rural countryside with minimal traffic,” Sutton said.

 

 


January 14, 2020

OncLive® Adds UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute to Its Strategic Alliance Partnership Program

OncLive logo

OncLive®, the nation’s leading digital resource focused on offering oncology professionals the most current and insightful information they need to provide the best patient care, expands its Strategic Alliance Partnership (SAP) program with the addition of Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS).


January 13, 2020

Request for Proposals

Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute Auxiliary The mission of the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute Auxiliary is to provide information, service, compassion and hope to those whose lives are touched by cancer.  The Cancer Institute Auxiliary is currently offering grants for innovative projects that are consistent with its mission statement and for which funding is…


January 10, 2020

Donghoon Yoon, Ph.D.

Donghoon Yoon, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor Department of Internal Medicine UAMS College of Medicine Faculty, Graduate Program in Interdisciplinary Biomedical Sciences Research Interest Statement My research is investigating the pathophysiology of multiple myeloma (MM), a B-cell cancer characterized by proliferation of malignant plasma cells in the bone marrow, presence of monoclonal serum immunoglobulin and osteolytic lesions. MM studies demonstrate…


UAMS to Offer Free 4-Week Stop Smoking Support Group Starting Jan. 15

| A free four-week program sponsored by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) is ready to help smokers kick the habit.

The small-group Stop Smoking Support Group will be offered from noon-1 p.m. for four Wednesdays starting Jan. 15 in the Strauss McCaskill Classroom on the 10th floor of the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute.

Advance registration is required by contacting certified tobacco treatment specialist Pat Franklin, A.P.R.N., at (501) 944-5934 or plfranklin@uams.edu.

Participants receive one-on-one support, hear first-hand stories from former smokers, and get information on nicotine replacement therapies, healthy eating habits and stress management.


UAMS is the state's only health sciences university, with colleges of Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy, Health Professions and Public Health; a graduate school; hospital; a main campus in Little Rock; a Northwest Arkansas regional campus in Fayetteville; a statewide network of regional campuses; and seven institutes: the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, Jackson T. Stephens Spine & Neurosciences Institute, Harvey & Bernice Jones Eye Institute, Psychiatric Research Institute, Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging, Translational Research Institute and Institute for Digital Health & Innovation. UAMS includes UAMS Health, a statewide health system that encompasses all of UAMS' clinical enterprise including its hospital, regional clinics and clinics it operates or staffs in cooperation with other providers. UAMS is the only adult Level 1 trauma center in the state. U.S. News & World Report named UAMS Medical Center the state's Best Hospital; ranked its ear, nose and throat program among the top 50 nationwide; and named six areas as high performing — cancer, colon cancer surgery, heart failure, hip replacement, knee replacement and lung cancer surgery. UAMS has 2,727 students, 870 medical residents and five dental residents. It is the state's largest public employer with more than 10,000 employees, including 1,200 physicians who provide care to patients at UAMS, its regional campuses, Arkansas Childrens Hospital, the VA Medical Center and Baptist Health. Visit www.uams.edu or www.uamshealth.com. Find us on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Instagram.

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December 20, 2019

Annual Donation to UAMS Breast Cancer Program Brings Ashley County Cares Total to $437,000

Ashley County Cares donation to UAMS

For 15 years, a small but determined group in south Arkansas has impacted the lives of thousands of women across the state.


December 19, 2019

Charles O’Brien, Ph.D.

Charles O’Brien, Ph.D.

Professor Department of Internal Medicine Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism UAMS College of Medicine VA Research Scientist Research Interest Statement The focus of my research is to understand the cellular and molecular mechanisms that control bone remodeling. Alterations in bone remodeling underlie changes in the skeleton that lead to osteoporosis. As part of this effort,…


Laura Hutchins, M.D., Honored as Dean’s Distinguished Scholar

Hutchins and Westfall at lecture

Laura Hutchins, M.D., receives the Dean’s Distinguished Scholar award from UAMS College of Medicine Dean Christopher Westfall, M.D.

| When a young Laura Hutchins’ mom encouraged her to get a part-time job, she found one in a clinical lab not far from her parents’ dairy farm in northeastern Mississippi.

It didn’t take long for the teenager to realize that lab work was more stimulating than cleaning barns.

It also was quickly apparent to her colleagues that Hutchins had a knack for health care.

“It was the lab techs who encouraged me to apply to medical school,” she said, reflecting back to a time in the early 1970s when few women pursued careers as doctors.

As one of only 11 women accepted to her class in the now-UAMS College of Medicine, Hutchins recalls the experience with humor, although it began with an unusual requirement.

“I was told I had to become a citizen of Arkansas in order to accept my spot in the class,” she said, citing an enrollment requirement. To do that, Hutchins needed to marry a resident of the state. Luckily for her, that was already in the works.

Determined to keep her medical school dream alive, Hutchins moved up her impending wedding and claimed the spot she rightfully earned.

Times have changed, she noted. The gender balance in the UAMS College of Medicine is now almost equally mixed, with 82 women and 88 men enrolled in the Class of 2020.

Hutchins’ determined spirit and thirst for knowledge carried her through medical school, internship, residency and a fellowship at UAMS, followed by multiple leadership roles on the faculty, including 15 years as director of the UAMS Division of Hematology/Oncology and 20 years as associate director for clinical research in the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute.

Hutchins presents lecture

Laura Hutchins, M.D., presents the 2019 Dean’s Distinguished Lectureship.

All told, she devoted 46 years at the university, most recently as interim director of the Cancer Institute.

“Dr. Hutchins postponed her retirement to serve as interim director for 18 months while the search for a permanent director was underway. For that we are eternally grateful,” said College of Medicine Dean Christopher Westfall, M.D.

Hutchins plans to retire in January 2020.

In recognition of her service, Hutchins was named the College of Medicine’s 2019 Distinguished Faculty Scholar. She presented the Dean’s Distinguished Lectureship to a crowd of colleagues and friends gathered to honor her Dec. 3.

“We have had many impressive speakers participate in the Dean’s Distinguished Lecture Series, but it is particularly gratifying to welcome one of our own,” said Westfall.

Westfall thanked the three College of Medicine faculty members who nominated Hutchins for this recognition: Kristin Zorn, M.D., professor and director of the Division of Gynecologic Oncology; Jeannette Lee, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Biostatistics; and Steve Post, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Pathology.

“In her nomination letter, Dr. Zorn noted Dr. Hutchins’ ‘legacy of selfless service,’ while Dr. Post stated that we all have benefited from Dr. Hutchins’ ‘steadfast leadership,’” said Westfall.

In her nomination, Lee noted the wide-ranging aspect of Hutchins’ research, from developing a vaccine for high-risk breast cancer patients to fully exploring the use of digital enterprise systems in clinical and translational research.

As for himself, Westfall expressed gratitude to Hutchins for her willingness to see his patients who needed the care of an oncologist.

“When I first arrived a UAMS, there was never a time when I called her about a patient when she didn’t say ‘send him over this afternoon,’ or ‘I’ll see her tomorrow,’” he said.

Westfall is also a professor and director of the UAMS Harvey & Bernice Jones Eye Institute.

A hematologist/oncologist and professor of medicine, Hutchins’ research activities focused primarily on clinical trials related to breast cancer and melanoma. She served as local investigator for more than 70 multisite trials and principal investigator for two cooperative group national trials.

She was program director of the UAMS Hematology/Oncology Fellowship Program for 10 years and held the Virginia Clinton Kelley Endowed Chair for Clinical Research from March 2007 to December 2018.

The Distinguished Faculty Scholar lecture is part of the College of Medicine’s Dean’s Distinguished Lecture series. Since 1993, the lecture series has brought researchers, clinicians and leaders in academic medicine from around the world to UAMS to discuss their work and advances in their fields.

Each year a special lecture honors one of the college’s own faculty members as the Dean’s Distinguished Faculty Scholar. Faculty members from throughout the college are invited to nominate colleagues, and a committee of faculty members evaluates comprehensive nomination packets to select the honoree.

 


December 10, 2019

Merideth Addicott, Ph.D.

Merideth Addicott, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor Center for Addiction Research Department of Psychiatry UAMS College of Medicine Research Interest Statement My current tobacco research agenda extends in three directions. The primary direction is on the stress-smoking relationship. Tobacco addiction disproportionately affects individuals with mood disorders, and smokers may use tobacco to temporarily reduce stress, anxiety and depressed mood; albeit,…


Cancer Research Highlights Largest-Ever Showcase of Medical Discoveries

Stephanie Byrum, PhD

Stephanie Byrum, Ph.D., assistant professor in the UAMS College of Medicine Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, discusses her research with fellow showcase attendees.

| Scientists conducting cancer research in the lab, clinic and community gathered Nov. 20 at the 26th UAMS Showcase of Medical Discoveries to share their projects and discuss ways to work together.

A quarterly event, the showcase is designed to highlight research areas across UAMS and encourage collaboration among scientists. Cancer research served as the focus of the event held at the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute. It attracted about 170 attendees from research and clinical areas to learn about the university’s wide scope of cancer research projects.

The showcase was co-sponsored by the UAMS Office of Research in conjunction with the Cancer Institute, College of Medicine and Office of Institutional Advancement.

Overview shot of showcase

About 170 people attended the Showcase of Medical Discoveries, which featured 40 posters highlighting cancer research programs and services at UAMS.

“This is an excellent time to highlight our cancer research programs, as we focus our efforts on attaining National Cancer Institute Designation and transition to new Cancer Institute leadership under director Dr. Michael Birrer. As we take stock of our strengths, we look forward to advancing our research programs on a strong new trajectory in the upcoming decade,” said Shuk-Mei Ho, Ph.D., vice chancellor of research.

Birrer, a medical oncologist who specializes in gynecologic cancers, joined the Cancer Institute as vice chancellor and director in late 2019.

In early 2019, the UAMS Cancer Institute received unanimous support in both the Arkansas Senate and House for its quest to achieve designation by the National Cancer Institute. An annual state allocation of $10 million will support this effort.

Ho stressed that the allocation designated by the Legislature is essential and illustrates the overarching support for designation among leaders and citizens in Arkansas.

“We have established a good foundation at UAMS toward achieving NCI Designation. The state’s support and enthusiasm for this important goal is a vital part of that,” Ho said.

To achieve designation, cancer centers undergo a highly competitive assessment process that demonstrates an outstanding depth and breadth of basic laboratory, patient/clinical and population-based research. The designation brings with it many benefits, including expanded access to federal funding for researchers and improved access to clinical trials for patients.

Mindy Simonson and Bobby McGehee

Genetic counselor Mindy Simonson discusses her research with Robert McGehee Jr., dean of the UAMS Graduate School.

At the showcase, researchers displayed 40 scientific posters representing Cancer Institute programs and numerous UAMS colleges and academic departments. Together with their colleagues, the scientists joined in lively discussions about the implications and goals of their research. Of the 26 showcases the UAMS Office of Research and Innovation has presented, this one was by far the largest, Ho said.

Genetic counselor Mindy Simonson and Kristin Zorn, M.D., chair of the Division of Gynecologic Oncology, shared a poster they recently presented at the National Society of Genetic Counselors Annual Meeting in Salt Lake City.

Their project examines how better to identify and streamline the referral process for patients with hereditary cancers.

Isabelle Racine Miousee, PHD

Isabelle Racine Miousse, Ph.D., assistant professor in the UAMS Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, shares information about her cancer research.

“We are working to build an adaptive questionnaire using electronic medical records to automatically generate a referral for patients who meet certain qualifications related to hereditary cancers,” Simonson said.

Although the process has presented technological challenges, the idea generated much excitement among participants at the Utah conference.

“A lot of people are interested in this concept and have talked to us about how it could work in various settings,” Simonson said.

Other scientists shared information related to their laboratory research, including Samantha Kendrick, Ph.D., assistant professor in the UAMS College of Medicine Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

Kendrick’s research focuses on treatment resistance in aggressive diffuse large B-cell lymphoma.

“We are working to find a way to shut off B-cell receptor signaling pathways at the DNA level. If we can develop a drug to target these genes, the disease could become more sensitive to chemotherapy and lead to better outcomes for patients,” Kendrick said.

In addition to viewing the wide range of cancer research programs and gathering information about potential collaborations, attendees also learned about the Cancer Institute’s infrastructure and research core facilities available to support their work.

Drs. Ho and Hutchins

Shuk-Mei Ho, Ph.D., (left) recognized Laura Hutchins, M.D., (right) at the event and honored for her many years of service to UAMS.

In a brief presentation, Ho recognized Laura Hutchins, M.D., for her more than 30 years of service to UAMS and its cancer programs. Hutchins served in multiple roles at UAMS, including division director of the UAMS Division of Hematology/Oncology for 15 years and program director of the UAMS Hematology/Oncology Fellowship Program for 10 years.

She held the prestigious Virginia Clinton Kelley Endowed Chair for Clinical Research from March 2007-December 2018 and was associate director for clinical research in the Cancer Institute for 20 years. For 18 months, she served as Cancer Institute interim director while the search for the new director was underway.

“Dr. Hutchins is one the strongest friends of research we have at UAMS. She champions this place in many ways and we are so thankful for her contributions,” Ho said. Hutchins plans to retire in early 2020.


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