Yale Professor Koichi Hamada was at a meeting when he began to feel ill. When he came out of the meeting, he realized that he couldn’t stand up. He shuffled to the stairs, and went down them one at a time, sitting down. He was determined to walk over to the university’s Health Center.
A secretary found him at the bottom of the stairs and realized there was something dramatically wrong. She called Hamada’s assistant, Louise Danishevsky, who immediately called an ambulance to transport him to the hospital. At the hospital, a CT scan found a brain hemorrhage at the base of his skull secondary to a ruptured aneurysm.
Neurosurgeon Ketan Bulsara, M.D., who specializes in exactly this kind of problem, was summoned and successfully operated on Hamada, saving him from potentially devastating neurological impairments, or even death.
Fast forward 11 years: Hamada has completely recovered. He and his wife, Carolyn Beaudin, are so grateful that they gave a gift to UConn Health to establish an annual lectureship in honor of Bulsara, who leads the neurosurgery team at UConn Health.
“He saved Koichi’s life,” Beaudin said. “Not only that, he saved him in a way that allowed Koichi to go on to be extremely productive.”
Hamada, who has retired from teaching, is a world-renowned economist who advises Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe. Until the pandemic hit, he would travel bimonthly to Japan to consult. In fact, Hamada is considered the architect of “Abenomics,” economic policies based on monetary easing, fiscal stimulus, and structural reform.
Beaudin, who retired from teaching in the Connecticut community college system and was professor and administrator at Quinnipiac University, now edits her husband’s articles and other academic papers.
Their gift, the Carolyn M. Beaudin and Koichi Hamada Fund for Neurosurgery, will endow an annual neurosurgery lecture. It will bring a renowned neurosurgeon to UConn Health each spring to share the latest innovations and advances in neurosurgery. Beaudin said the couple is thrilled to be able to honor Bulsara and, ultimately, help other patients.
“It’s exciting. I never thought we would be in any position to do something like that,” she said.
Bulsara said he is grateful for and honored by the gift.
“Both Carolyn and Professor Hamada have dedicated their lives to the advancement of others,” said Bulsara, who is also a professor at UConn Health. “Professor Hamada’s work has had global impact and has charted the future course of generations of people and countries all around the world. Together, they have made an incredible team whose positive global impact is legendary and will benefit generations to come.”
Andrew Agwunobi, M.D., UConn Health’s CEO and Executive Vice President for Health Affairs, said he was grateful to Beaudin and Hamada for their thoughtful gift.
“This lecture series will bring cutting-edge neurosurgeons from around the world to UConn Health to share the latest innovations and advances in clinical neurosurgery,” Agwunobi said.
Whelen Engineering Co. manufactures emergency lights and sirens for first responders, so when the pandemic hit, the company was eager to find a way to help protect these front line workers.
Company leaders turned to their engineers to design face masks and full-face shields and then quickly produced them in their manufacturing plants in Chester, Conn. and Charlestown, NH. The company recently donated 1,000 of these protective masks to UConn Health.
“When we started having internal discussions about what we could do to help, everyone jumped right in,” said George W. Whelen V, the company’s president and CEO. “We are proud to support the essential health care workers at UConn Health, who are so valiantly serving the state of Connecticut and our community.”
UConn Health leaders said the donation helps address a dire shortage of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers at the hospital.
“Thank you for your thoughtfulness in providing critical supplies of face masks to those on the frontlines battling COVID-19 here at UConn Health,” said Andrew Agwunobi, UConn Health CEO and executive vice president for health affairs. “As we navigate the evolving situation daily, it is inspiring to have friends like you who support our health-care staff through contributions of much-needed supplies for their protection. On behalf of our doctors, nurses, and staff, thank you for standing with UConn Health. We will get through this together.”
Find further information on donating personal protective equipment (PPE) or making a donation to purchase medical supplies for UConn Health.
The Chinese Baptist Church of Greater Hartford donated 1,900 surgical and medical masks to UConn Health and ordered 31,000 more from China to be distributed to UConn’s John Dempsey Hospital and other Hartford-area hospitals.
Several volunteers in the church’s congregation arranged the delivery after discussing how they could help medical workers on the frontline of the coronavirus (COVID-19) battle. They decided to reach out to friends in China try to find mask suppliers, said Ching Lau, MD, a member of the congregation who holds joint appointments as professor of pediatrics at UConn Health, professor at Jackson Laboratory, and chief of hematology-oncology at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center.
“We know that the supply chain is kind of tight in the U.S.,” he said. “Because we have members who came from mainland China who have connections, we reached out to some suppliers in China. We asked if there was a chance for us to purchase some equipment and bring it over here to donate to nearby hospitals.”
The most recent shipment was delivered to UConn Health last week and the rest are expected to arrive in about a week. The church plans to distribute the larger shipment to UConn Health, Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, and other Hartford-area hospitals as well as rehabilitation centers and nursing homes, Lau explained.
“We are incredibly grateful to the Chinese Baptist Church of Greater Hartford for donating this critical equipment to protect our staff,” said Andrew Agwunobi, MD, CEO of UConn Health and executive vice president for health affairs.
Lau said the 220 members of the Bloomfield-based church are committed to living out their faith in the community through actions.
“This goes along with the vision of the church that we’re not supposed to be living inside an ivory tower. We are supposed to be going out there in the community,” he said.
Donate personal protective equipment (PPE) and/or make a charitable gift to the UConn Health COVID-19 Rapid Response Fund.
Kathy Banas-Marti ’81 (CLAS) and her husband, David Marti ’81 (ENG), of Windsor, Conn., felt compelled to donate to the COVID-19 Rapid Response Fund to show their strong support for UConn Health.
“My husband and I donated to help those on the frontline who treat those affected by COVID-19,” said Banas-Marti, a reference librarian at the Homer Babbidge Library on the Storrs campus.
The couple’s twin daughters, Katherine and Kristen, recently completed rotations at UConn Health as part of their pharmacy doctoral program.
“They are very fond of their professors there and made good connections. I really wanted to show that our family is supporting them,” Banas-Marti said.
She and her husband, an engineering manager at a medical equipment company, graduated from UConn the same year, but didn’t start dating until after graduation. Their entire family is proud to be part of UConn Nation.
“I loved UConn so much, I never left,” joked Banas-Marti.
Make an Impact Today
The UConn Health COVID-19 Rapid Response Fund provides support for the purchase of medical equipment and supplies needed for the treatment of the COVID-19 virus.
Dr. Barbara J. Hatcher ’67 (NUR) has dedicated her career to improving health outcomes through nursing and public health leadership.
Over the course of 51 years of nursing, instigating system-wide change, and providing leadership in health care policy and practice, Dr. Barbara Hatcher ’67 (NUR) has achieved many breakthroughs, as an African American, a woman, and a nurse.
She was the first nurse and African-American nurse to sit on the March of Dimes Medical Advisory Committee. She was the first nurse selected for her hometown of Waterbury’s Hall of Fame. She served as the first chief science officer for the American Public Health Association. And she was the first woman, first African American, and first nurse to serve as secretary general of the World Federation of Public Health Associations.
But the firsts don’t even begin to tell the whole story of Dr. Hatcher’s career.
After graduating from UConn’s School of Nursing, where she learned from Kate Hyder, who championed the training of African-American women as nurse-midwives, Dr. Hatcher worked with the Visiting Nurse Association of Washington D.C. in primarily low-income neighborhoods, including those destroyed during the 1968 riots after the death of Martin Luther King Jr.
There, desperate addicts tried to steal nurses’ syringes, families didn’t have enough to eat, and seniors were living in deplorable conditions. “It took everything you learned in school plus an understanding of place and context to provide care,” she says. “But I loved this job, and I felt I made a difference.” The experience inspired her to become one of the first pediatric nurse practitioners in the District of Columbia and the United States.
The work she had done with families, mothers and children in these communities served as the foundation of her work in public health programming and shaping policy.
“Health policy is important, because you have a constantly revolving cycle of people who cannot reach their full potential due to systemic stressors in their lives,” she says. “Nurses work around the barriers that exist for certain populations, but the aim should be to improve the system for the whole population.”
Dr. Hatcher, who also holds Master of Public Health from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a Ph.D. in Nursing Administration and Health Policy from George Mason University, has collaborated with a variety of local, national and international organizations to address health inequities and expand the use of evidence-based practices.
She founded the D.C. Department of Health’s multimillion-dollar Healthy Start project to reduce infant mortality and barriers to pre-natal care; served as chair of the District of Columbia Board of Nursing, where she worked to establish rules and regulations for expanded nursing practice; and established a program in Kenya to support the salaries of two nurses providing care to HIV/AIDS orphans in conjunction with the Alpha Chapter of Chi Eta Phi Sorority — a professional organization of registered nurses and nursing students founded in 1932 when black nurses were barred from joining the American Nurses Association.
Dr. Hatcher currently serves as president of the Chi Eta Phi Educational Foundation and runs a health care consulting firm, Hatcher-DuBois-Odrick Group, LLC. She has been named a Fellow of the American Academy of Nursing and honored with the National Black Nurses Association’s Trailblazer Award in recognition of her efforts to eliminate barriers for African-American nurses and their patients.
“The Code of Ethics for Nurses compels us to ‘practice with compassion and respect for the inherent dignity, worth, and unique attributes of every individual,’” she says. “Nurses must be part of the broader fabric of society in order to make certain we can eliminate health disparities for good.”
If the genetic code is like a book, then a mutation is like a typo. Some typos are meaningless. Others have such dramatic consequences for a book, or a life, that the error alone could have an entire novel written about it.
Cancer mutations are like that. As oncology moves toward precision medicine – the idea that if we knew exactly which genetic mutations make a particular cancer tick, we could pick exactly the right treatments – oncologists have to keep up with an ever-expanding library of mutations and the drugs that might foil them. The number of cancer research papers published increases every year; there were about 35,000 published in 2015 just in the U.S. It’s far more than any one person can keep up with.
A new collaboration between UConn Health and The Jackson Laboratory (JAX) hopes to help oncologists find the right treatments by keeping up with research for them – and using the institutions’ combined expertise in cancer treatment, molecular biology, and genetics to improve patient outcomes for cancers that currently don’t have good treatments. In the same way that a university has research librarians who keep up with the literature in specific fields, JAX has experts who keep up with cancer gene and drug research, even studies that are ongoing and not yet published. JAX already successfully connects these experts with doctors in the Maine Cancer Genomics Initiative, a philanthropy-funded statewide precision medicine program. UConn Health and JAX hope to expand the concept and demonstrate its feasibility more widely.
In the same way that a university has research librarians who keep up with the literature in specific fields, JAX has experts who keep up with cancer gene and drug research, even studies that are ongoing and not yet published.
Bull’s Eye Treatment
Imagine that a patient has surgery or a needle biopsy to diagnose a tumor. It’s a particularly ugly tumor, the surgeon, oncologist, and pathologist all agree. Invasive, spreading, and perhaps this isn’t the first time this patient has had to come in for cancer surgery. The tumor is sampled and sent for genetic testing. In about two weeks, the results come back: there are three genetic variants in the tumor that might be drug targets.
“The goal is to define the optimal treatment regimen for each individual patient” who may not have good options otherwise, says Dr. Ketan R. Bulsara, chief of neurosurgery at UConn Health and one of the principal investigators on the project.
The report is intended to be a standalone reference an oncologist can use to inform a treatment plan. But if the oncologist is unfamiliar with one of the mutations identified in the report or just wants more information, they can request that a genomic tumor board be convened. The board is composed of surgeons, pathologists, and molecular oncologists who act as external advisors, sharing their opinions with the oncologist. In just 15 minutes, the oncologist can get a wealth of expert opinion to combine with their own expertise and judgment. In the end, the oncologist and patient decide on the best treatment, based on all the available information.
“In a multidisciplinary fashion, doctors and scientists work hand in hand in this with one common goal: identify the best treatment regimen for that particular patient’s pathology,” Bulsara says.
The focus is always on the patient. But behind the scenes, there’s an entire team of researchers whose work goes into the genetic tumor report. Scientists at JAX Clinical Laboratory sequence the tumor’s genetic code and report information on more than 200 cancer-related genes. The genes were picked because they are associated with both malignancy and potential drug treatments. Any mutations or variants in these genes might be a clue to the cancer’s weakness. Or a red herring.
“A typical tumor might have 2,000 mutations. Not all of them really matter,” says Andrey Antov, the program director for the Maine Cancer Genome Initiative at JAX. Finding the key mutations that matter, the two or ten or twenty that could possibly inform treatment and a better outcome for the patient, is the job of the clinical genomic curators.
The clinical genomic curators are specialists in fields such as molecular oncology and oncological pharmacology. They’re dedicated to keeping up with the literature on cancer genes and the drugs that target them. More and more of these drug-gene connections are being discovered every day. It’s exciting, but the sheer volume of papers can be overwhelming. Navigating that ocean of scientific papers is the medical curators’ full-time job. They’re like librarians curating a Boston Public Library-size collection of genes and drugs with no cross references in the card catalog and only an imperfect search function. The hope is that just as a good librarian’s knowledge of the subject matter can unearth texts a researcher would never otherwise find, a medical curator’s grasp of oncological genetics and pharmacology can identify potential treatments that would otherwise remain obscure.
Each mutation identified by the genetic panel might require 10 to 20 scientific publications to understand. Once the curators have a handle on the variants’ significance, the clinical laboratory decides which two or three should be described in the report to the oncologist.
Sifting the information down to something relevant and digestible is the ultimate goal.
“Today, all this information is disorganized and may not all be in the oncologist’s head. We’re trying to bring it together,” says Jens Rueter, medical director for the Maine Cancer Genomics Initiative.
The ideal outcome of a tumor genetic analysis would be to identify a mutation such as the HER2 gene that is turned on in the most aggressive breast cancers. HER2 is responsible for the cancer’s malignancy. But it’s also the cancer’s Achilles’ heel. Once drugs were developed to block the HER2 protein, survival rates climbed sharply.
The goal of the Maine Cancer Genomics Initiative is to enable oncologists to identify other drug-gene connections as potent as the ones found for HER2. Although more and more of these drug-gene connections are being discovered, it remains difficult to provide a patient with access to these drugs. Many of them are only available if a patient participates in a clinical trial. And often, there are barriers to accessing clinical trials, and getting drugs off-label is the only way to get patients to treatments. That’s another benefit that Antov, Bulsara, and Rueter hope UConn Health’s collaboration with JAX will bring.
Ultimately, the researchers hope to demonstrate that this approach leads to better outcomes for patients. During the past year more than 350 patients and 70 oncology practitioners (more than 80 percent of the Maine oncology community) enrolled in the Maine Cancer Genomics Initiative study protocol. A few patients have already been offered a targeted treatment through a trial or a compassionate drug access program as a result of enrollment in the program. And Maine health care professionals have logged more than 1,200 certified education hours through 35 genomic tumor boards, online modules, and annual forums held by JAX.
So far, five patients have done this at UConn Health within the last two months. Generous donors have given enough to fund 20 more.
“We hope to get funding for at least 100 patients to show the feasibility of this approach,” Bulsara says. “We want to show we can do this reliably, and that it reliably improves patient care.”
UConn Health already has the infrastructure to do this, in particular a biorepository for tumors set up by Neag Cancer Center director Dr. Pramod Srivastava and pathologist Dr. Melinda Sanders. With that foundation and support from UConn Medical School dean Dr. Bruce Liang and UConn Health CEO Dr. Andrew Agwunobi, the program was piloted in the Department of Surgery by Bulsara, its chief of neurosurgery, with support from Department of Surgery chairman Dr. David McFadden, hematology, and oncology chief Dr. Susan Tannenbaum, anatomical pathology chief Dr. Qian Wu, and JAX Clinical Laboratory director Honey Reddi.
If the UConn Health–JAX initiative does prove its feasibility, the approach will continue to spread and become a standard of care.
The hope is that just as a good librarian’s knowledge of the subject matter can unearth texts a researcher would never otherwise find, a medical curator’s grasp of oncological genetics and pharmacology can identify potential treatments that would otherwise remain obscure.
More oncologists could have access to the library of knowledge and advice of a genetic tumor board, and more cancer patients could benefit from longer, healthier lives.
This story first appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of UConn Health Journal. For more stories on UConn Health research and clinical innovations, visit healthjournal.uconn.edu.
Gifts to the Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center Fund support all facets of the Carole and Ray Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center at UConn Health—from innovative approaches to personalized patient care to groundbreaking faculty research.