narrative medicine

What is narrative medicine? Our expert explains.

Dr. Robert Slocum

Dr. Robert Slocum

Written by Robert Slocum, PhD, the narrative medicine facilitator at UK HealthCare.

At the UK Integrative Medicine & Health program, our goal is to combine traditional medical therapies with other health and wellness practices to help patients achieve optimal health and healing.

When a patient is diagnosed with an illness or disease, the focus is often on treatment and healing the body. Unfortunately, as patients confront the anxieties of being sick, their mental health can decline, too.

One practice we use at UK HealthCare to help promote mental strength and well-being is called narrative medicine.

What is narrative medicine and how does it help?

Narrative medicine invites patients to share stories of their life and treatment through guided conversations and personal writing.

As patients share their unique experiences, a narrative medicine facilitator will help to tease out important details and insights that patients can use to cope with their diagnosis and recover mentally.

Narrative medicine helps patients understand their illness and healthcare journey in the context of their entire life story. Patients often gain new perspectives on their illness and treatment by putting their experiences into words.

Narrating these experiences may also help them discover connections between the journey of treatment and their own beliefs.

Patients often come away from narrative work with a clearer sense of personal meaning and direction.

What happens during a narrative medicine session?

Narrative medicine sessions usually take place in a patient’s hospital room or at a treatment or infusion center.

During the session, the narrative medicine facilitator will ask a few simple questions to learn more about the patient’s story and will help direct the conversation. Patients are always welcome to focus on a particular concern, issue or memory.

Although the direction of each conversation varies greatly from patient to patient, I try to ask three questions every time:

  • “What is your source of hope?”
  • “Where do you get your strength?”
  • “What gives you the courage to face the future?”

How does narrative medicine help patients’ families?

Facing illness and treatment can be a challenging journey for patients and their loved ones.

Through the narrative medicine process, patients may be better able to share the story of their treatment journey with family, friends and care providers, leading to a feeling of greater support from those who are most important in their life.

Are there medical benefits to narrative medicine?

Absolutely. Narrative medicine has been shown to:

  • Help release emotional and physical pain and encourage overall well-being.
  • Offer nonpharmacological pain management.
  • Encourage the trust and rapport between the patient and their treatment team, improving communication and promoting patient cooperation and outcomes.

UK HealthCare’s narrative medicine practice

Narrative medicine sessions are available for UK HealthCare patients and their families.

While we primarily work with cancer patients at the UK Markey Cancer Center, we also work with other specialties at UK HealthCare including heart care patients and those in the Kentucky Children’s Hospital.

For more information about narrative medicine or to schedule an appointment for a narrative medicine session, contact me at 859-324-0955 or

Next steps:

  • Find out more about UK Integrative Medicine & Health, a program that focuses on the treating the whole patient using all appropriate therapies, healthcare expertise and disciplines to achieve optimal health and healing.
  • Learn about UK HealthCare’s music therapy program, which uses music to help improve patients’ well-being.

Author of heart-healthy cookbook to speak at UK on Nov. 18

Popular cookbook author Jane Esselstyn is coming to UK HealthCare on Nov. 18 for a lecture and cooking demonstration about the benefits of a plant-based diet for heart disease prevention.

Esselstyn, a former health educator, has spent most of her life advocating for a plant-based, whole-food diet. A collection of her recipes is featured in The Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease Cookbook, which she co-authored with her mother, Ann.

The event is part of the UK Gill Heart & Vascular Institute Women’s Heart Health Program’s “Feeding Your Heart and Soul” initiative. Dr. Gretchen Wells, the program director, is an enthusiastic voice in the campaign to reduce the incidence of heart disease in Kentucky.

Numerous studies have linked a plant-based diet to lower risks of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease – as much as 30 percent, according to one Harvard study, Wells said. Plant-based doesn’t mean vegetarian, however: Smaller amounts of lean meats such as chicken or fish are OK.

“One of our missions at the Gill is to educate Kentuckians about lifestyle and encourage them to make changes that reduce their risk for heart disease,” Wells said. “Jane can provide them the tools to live healthier lives, so bringing her to Lexington was a logical fit.”

The event takes place in the UK Albert B. Chandler Hospital Pavilion A Auditorium and will kick off at 8 a.m. with an optional free yoga session. Esselstyn will take the stage for a brief lecture at 9 a.m., followed by a cooking demonstration at 10 a.m. and tastings at 11 a.m.

Some of the recipes Esselstyn will be demonstrating include: kale bruschetta, corn muffins with jalapenos and salsa, chocolate-raspberry mango parfait, smoky little devils (a healthy take on deviled eggs), and several salad dressings. Samples of most recipes will be available for tasting following the demonstration.

The $15 registration fee includes the tastings and a copy of her Esselstyn’s cookbook.

Registration ends Nov. 10 and is limited to the first 125 people. Free parking is available in the UK HealthCare parking garage at 110 Transcript Ave., directly across South Limestone from Chandler Hospital.

To register, contact Karen Michul at or call 859-218-0121.

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10 warning signs of domestic violence

10 warning signs of domestic violence

One in four women (and one in seven men) in the United States will be victims of domestic violence at some time in their lives. Domestic violence isn’t just physical – it’s a pattern of physical, verbal, sexual and psychological violence used by one partner in a relationship to gain power or control over another partner. The effects can be devastating.

It’s important to understand the signs of domestic violence so that you can take action to help yourself or a loved one. Here are 10 of the most common indications that a relationship is abusive:

1. Physical abuse: Any use of force or physical harm.

2. Mental or emotional abuse: A regular pattern of verbal offense, threatening, bullying and constant criticism, as well as more subtle tactics like intimidation, shaming and manipulation.

3. Controlling money: Your partner should not have financial secrets, keep money from you or control how you spend your money.

4. Checking phone, email or social media without your permission: Looking through your email, phone or internet history without your knowledge or permission.

5. Isolation/keeping you from seeing friends or loved ones.

6. Cruelty to animals or children: Violent behavior toward animals or children.

7. Threats or intimidation: This may include your partner breaking things on purpose that are sentimental or valuable to you.

8. Threats of suicide: Using threats of suicide as a way to control a partner and/or keep them from leaving.

9. Drug or alcohol abuse: This can lead to other abusive behaviors. One partner insisting the other drink or take drugs is also a form of abuse.

10. Extreme jealousy or possessiveness: Calling or checking up on you excessively or insisting on knowing where you are at every moment. This also includes possessive behavior, such as criticizing or dictating what you wear.

These behaviors are not acceptable in any relationship. If you or a loved one is experiencing any of these signs of abuse, tell a trusted friend immediately and talk with a health professional or contact a local domestic violence awareness group.

Visit to find a shelter and other domestic violence help in your area. GreenHouse17 Inc., formerly the Bluegrass Domestic Violence Prevention Program, an advocacy group for victims of intimate partner violence, has locations in Lexington. Reach their toll-free hotline at 800-544-2022.

In other areas, the National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached by phone at 800-799-7233 or on the web at

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Barnstable Brown

UK celebrates new expansion of Barnstable Brown Diabetes Center

The UK Barnstable Brown Diabetes Center is celebrating a significant milestone in its 10-year history with a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new clinic expansion at UK HealthCare at Turfland and recognition of a recent top 50 ranking in U.S. News and World Report for patient care in endocrinology and diabetes.

Since its inception in 2008, the Barnstable Brown Diabetes Center has been a leader in diabetes prevention, education, research and comprehensive care. The new clinic space at UK HealthCare at Turfland will allow the center to care for even more patients and includes space for an education center.

The Barnstable Brown Diabetes Center was established by twins Patricia Barnstable Brown and Priscilla Barnstable along with their mother, Wilma. They pledged the initial funding to support the center in memory of Patricia Barnstable Brown’s husband, David, who passed away from complications of diabetes in 2003.

Proceeds from the family’s annual Derby Eve Gala, which attracts celebrities from across the world to the Barnstable Brown family home in Louisville, have benefited research and patient care at the diabetes center at UK. To date, more than $13 million has been donated.

“Thanks to the generosity and vision of the Barnstable Brown family, patients with diabetes in Kentucky are receiving the highest level of patient care and benefiting from innovative research that impacts treatment and understanding of the disease,” UK President Eli Capilouto said.

Treating diabetes in Kentucky

Currently, the center treats more than 7,500 adult patients and 2,500 pediatric patients each year in the management and treatment of diabetes and related diseases.

“The support from the Barnstable Brown Family has enabled us to recruit talented physicians, physician-scientists and specialized staff dedicated to the care of patients and their families,” said Dr. Mark F. Newman, UK executive vice president for health affairs. “Having a center where clinical care, research and education come together for the benefit of patients now and in the future is a tremendous asset and resource for everyone in Kentucky and beyond.”

Overall, it is estimated that more than 600,000 Kentuckians have diabetes and that as many as one in three adults in Kentucky may have pre-diabetes, either diagnosed or undiagnosed.

“As the burden of diabetes in Kentucky continues to grow, the UK Barnstable Brown Diabetes Center is pushing forward to improve diabetes prevention and quality of life and to increase better health outcomes,” said Dr. John Fowlkes, director of the center and a pediatric endocrinologist. “The newly expanded clinic marks a monumental step towards that goal.”

Comprehensive care in one location

The expansion will allow the center to care for more patients of all ages – from infants to seniors – with diabetes and related disorders at one consolidated location. The Barnstable Brown Diabetes Center at Turfland also will house on-site access to pharmacy and supplies, ophthalmology and optometry services, laboratory testing, ultrasound, and radiology.

Services offered include consultation with expert diabetes specialists; coordination of care for diabetes complications; screening and management; and comprehensive patient education plans.

Clinical resources include:

  • 11 physicians and four advanced practice providers at the adult clinic.
  • Five physicians, two advanced practice providers, a certified social worker and nursing resources at the pediatric clinic.
  • Six outpatient clinic-based diabetes educators.
  • Five outpatient diabetes educators.

Impacting lives across Kentucky

“This is a very emotional and heartfelt time for me to witness the recognition of the center as it continues to expand and flourish in helping patients throughout the Kentucky,” Patricia Barnstable Brown said. “The expansion of space and resources means the center can touch even more lives across the Commonwealth and beyond.”

Touching lives is at the heart of what the center is all about.

Lives impacted include those of the Middleton family of Lexington – James (JC) and Lisa, along with their children, Kara and Max. JC and both children have Type 1 diabetes and receive care and diabetes management at the Barnstable Brown Diabetes Center.

“Diabetes has touched our entire family,” said JC Middleton. “It’s a different challenge every day, but we are learning to live a full and healthy life with diabetes with the help of the Barnstable Brown Diabetes Center.”

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Markesbery Symposium

Learn about dementia, aging at the Markesbury Symposium

Why do some people stay intellectually sharp into their 90s, while others have memory problems? Is there anything we can learn from their lifestyles that can help everyone age successfully?

These are among topics to be discussed at the UK Sanders-Brown Center on Aging’s Markesbery Symposium on Nov. 3-4. Keynote speakers are:

  • Dr. Claudia Kawas of the 90+ Study which explores the fastest-growing age group in the U.S. Kawas appeared in a 2014 “60 Minutes” episode called Living to 90 and Beyond that explored the secrets to a long and happy life.
  • Rachel Whitmer, a national expert on risk factors for dementia, including obesity and diabetes. Whitmer was also featured on “60 Minutes” in a 2016 story about an extended family in Columbia with a genetic mutation that causes Alzheimer’s disease. Studying this family might help scientists discover ways to prevent the disease in the general population.

“Typically we focus on who gets dementia and why, but we can learn just as much from the people who don’t get Alzheimer’s,” said Linda Van Eldik, director of the Sanders-Brown Center on Aging. “We are delighted to bring two national experts to Lexington to continue this discourse.”

The scientific session will be at 10 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 3 in the UK Albert B. Chandler Hospital Pavilion A Auditorium. In addition to presentations by Kawas and Whitmer, there will be a judged scientific poster session and an update on research at the Sanders-Brown Center on Aging. Click here to register for the Scientific Session or call 859-323-5474.

The Community Session goes from 8:30 a.m. to noon on Saturday, Nov. 4 at the Lexington Convention Center’s Bluegrass Ballroom, 430 W. Vine Street. It will feature an “Ask the Experts” segment where participants can ask questions of Whitmer, Kawas and researchers from the UK Sanders-Brown Center on Aging.

A free continental breakfast on Saturday will be provided courtesy of the Lexington Legends. The event is free but registration is required. Call 859-323-5474 or click here to register for the Community Session.

Watch the video below to see Dr. van Eldik preview this year’s symposium.

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Dr. Jonathan Kiev answers common questions about COPD

Dr. Jonathan Kiev

Dr. Jonathan Kiev

Written by Dr. Jonathan Kiev, a cardiothoracic surgeon at UK HealthCare.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is a potentially debilitating lung disease that makes it difficult to breathe and tends to get worse over time.

There are two main types of COPD: emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with COPD, you might be unsure of what comes next. I’m here to answer some of the questions I hear most often about the disease.

What causes COPD?

About 18 million Americans suffer from COPD, and the vast majority of cases – between 85 and 90 percent – are caused by smoking.

What type of doctor treats COPD?

Generally, a pulmonologist (lung specialist) or a thoracic surgeon (lung surgeon) will decide if you need oxygen, whether you would benefit from pulmonary rehabilitation, and what type of medicine or surgery would be appropriate for you.

What is a bronchodilator?

Bronchodilators are medicines that help relax muscle airways. They can be prescribed in either short-acting or long-acting form and can come as an inhaler or a pill.

Bronchodilators are the most popular outpatient treatment for COPD – they are effective in treating symptoms and will improve your ability to exercise. Occasionally, steroids will be added to your treatment regimen to help reduce the frequency of breathing flare-ups and improve your quality of life.

What are PFTs?

PFTs are pulmonary function tests. These tests allow your doctor to evaluate your overall lung function and the severity of your symptoms. Based on the results of your PFTs, your doctor can then make treatment recommendations for you.

Over time, your doctor may reorder PFTs to gauge your improvement after being on medication.

What is pulmonary rehabilitation? Does it work?

Pulmonary rehabilitation is usually performed at a hospital or healthcare facility and can help increase your exercise capacity, reduce your breathlessness and improve your quality of life. Most patients benefit from pulmonary rehabilitation programs, which usually last between six and 10 weeks.

It’s not uncommon to be afraid or anxious when you’re short of breath. The good news is pulmonary rehab can also help improve these symptoms of anxiety and depression that we sometimes see in patients.

Is surgery an option for patients with COPD?

Some COPD patients form blebs or bullae – blisters on the lungs that are similar to a bald spot on a tire. These areas are prone to rupture, which could potentially lead to a collapse of the lung. Some of these blebs become so large that they actually press down on good portions of the lung and make breathing more difficult.

In these cases, your doctor may recommend surgery to remove the diseased portions of the lung. This can help prevent a future collapse and free up good portions of the lung to help improve your breathing.

Is lung transplant ever an option in COPD?

Absolutely. In fact, about 85 percent of current lung transplant candidates worldwide have emphysema-related diseases, including cystic fibrosis, pulmonary fibrosis and pulmonary hypertension.

Transplants are not done if the patient has active cancer, uncorrectable heart disease or is currently smoking or abusing substances. Lung transplants are performed at specialized centers, and patients who undergo this procedure often have very good outcomes.

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Making the Rounds with Dr. Vish Talwalkar

Ortho surgeon Vish Talwalkar on why he loves caring for kids

Making the RoundsWe sat down with Dr. Vishwas Talkwalkar, a pediatric orthopaedic surgeon at Kentucky Children’s Hospital and Shriners Hospitals for Children Medical Center – Lexington, for our latest Making the Rounds interview. Dr. Talwalkar is a native Kentuckian and grew up right here in Lexington. Today, he specializes in treating a variety of orthopaedic concerns in kids of all ages.

When did you know you wanted to be a doctor?

I became interested in medicine at a pretty young age. Based on some of the things that my parents tell me, they thought I was going to be a doctor starting when I was in fourth or fifth grade.

My initial long-term plan was to play professional football and then come back and go into medicine. But that didn’t work out, so I ended up going straight into medicine.

What conditions do you treat?

I like to say that the patients I take care of come in all sizes and in all shapes. We see infants within the first few hours of life all the way up to patients who are 21 and older who have orthopaedic conditions that require our care as adults.

We take care of problems like hip dysplasia and spinal deformities of all different kinds. We also see children with cerebral palsy and other neuromuscular conditions, children with developmental diseases like Legg-Calve-Perthes disease or Blount’s disease, and children with bow legs and knock knees.

That’s part of the beauty of pediatric orthopaedics: We get to take care of such a broad variety of patients.

Why do you enjoy treating kids?

I like to take care of children because they’re so resilient and they’re so much fun. Every day, they seem to have a different funny story, and every day when I come to work, it’s always a little bit different, which makes it fun.

Orthopaedics is great because it allows you to impact patients in ways that you can see the results of what you’ve done. And with kids, you can see the results as they continue to grow up, which is very gratifying.

What does your ideal weekend look like?

My ideal weekend would be in the fall, doing what I call the Kentucky Triple Crown: You get up in the morning and play golf, and then go to Keeneland in the afternoon, and then go to a Kentucky football game at night.

What would you be doing if you weren’t a doctor?

If I wasn’t a physician, I’d probably be a high school biology teacher and football coach.

How would your friends and family describe you?

Probably as pretty easy-going and interested in a lot of things. Pretty passionate about the things I do. And as somebody who’s a good listener.

Watch our video profile with Dr. Talwalkar, where he explains the special connection between UK HealthCare and Shriners and what it means for our patients.

Next steps:

Alexis Johnson

Eye care experts provide lifelong support for blind equestrian

When Alexis Johnson, a 22-year-old avid equestrian and resident of Versailles, Ky., prepares to jump with her horse Joey in competition, she is keenly focused on what lies before her. There are no distractions, no nerves and no fear. Everything around her is in shades of gray, and the only sound she hears is the rhythmic pace of Joey’s hooves as he begins to canter.

As Joey jumps over the fence, Johnson feels like she’s flying – a feeling of pure joy and exhilaration. Her limitations are nonexistent.

It doesn’t matter that she is legally blind.

Twenty-two years ago, Alexis’ mother, Lynn Johnson, was standing outside on a sunny day holding her then 8-month-old daughter. She noticed the pupils of Alexis’ eyes were so large that she thought the sun might burn them. Alexis also squinted her eyes a lot in bright light, displayed repetitive rapid eye movements and had one eye that was turned inward.

Lynn took Alexis to a general ophthalmologist but wasn’t satisfied with the lack of answers. She made an appointment with Dr. Julia Stevens, an opthalamologist at UK Advanced Eye Care, for a second opinion.

After several tests to rule out brain injury, an electroretinogram (ERG) confirmed a diagnosis of congenital achromatopsia, a rare hereditary disease that affects only one in 33,000 people in the U.S.

Not only had Lynn found answers, she found a physician who would provide healthcare and support for Alexis throughout her life.

UK provides support after rare diagnosis

An ERG examines the light-sensitive cells of the eye, the rods and cones, and their connecting cells in the retina. When Alexis was tested 22 years ago, a large contact lens was placed on her eye to measure the light responses in her retinas.

“We were fortunate because UK was one of the few facilities to have an ERG,” Lynn said. “The wires that record the natural responses to light showed that Alexis had no response to light. The line on the screen was flat.”

Dr. Julia Stevens

Dr. Julia Stevens

Stevens explains that achromatopsia is an autosomal recessive disease, meaning two copies of a mutated gene must be present in the affected person.

“Both parents must be carriers, and their child will inherit one recessive gene from the mother and one from the father,” Stevens said. “Individuals with achromatopsia have nonfunctioning cones and rely on rods for their vision. Rods do not function well in daylight, thus people with achromatopsia have extreme sensitivity to light, poor color vision and poor central (reading) vision.”

Today, UK Advanced Eye Care has the most technically sophisticated ERG technology available anywhere, offering significant advantages over the prior system. The new ERG machine provides easier testing with comfortable-fitting electrodes that can sit on the skin or on the surface of the eye, highly sensitive and reproducible signal recording, and a large library of tests that can be used to determine problems in the visual pathway to better understand why patients are experiencing vision loss.

UK Advanced Eye Care recently acquired a new, smaller ERG machine that can easily be taken into the operating room and to other locations throughout the hospital to test for diseases of the retina and optic nerve. The current equipment can be used for ERGs on babies and toddlers without having to use sedation, as the system is handheld and can be easily positioned over the patient’s eye during testing.

A lifetime of comprehensive care

At UK Advanced Eye Care, patients can see multiple subspecialists in one location, allowing their complex eye care to be provided by an integrated team.

Stevens says that in Alexis’ care, for example, she had testing through the retinal service, care for her achromatopsia with appropriate eyeglass prescriptions, diagnostic tests by Stevens and a pediatric ophthalmologist, and assistance from the optometry service and optical shop to provide special tinted contact lenses.

As an infant, Alexis was fitted with red-tinted glasses. The red tint is protective of the eyes and filters out light rays, which makes it easier for her to recognize outlines and objects.

After Alexis experienced some bullying in elementary school because of her bulky red glasses, Lynn had Alexis fitted for red contacts, which she said made a big difference. Red-tinted contacts completely seal the eyes so light cannot enter, and Alexis says they’vr made her “feel normal” for the first time.

‘I will find a way’

Alexis has 20/200 vision and is legally blind. She only sees in shades of gray with limited color perception and no fine vision. Even so, she’s confident that nothing in life is beyond her reach because of achromatopsia.

At age four, Alexis learned to play soccer by the sound of the footsteps around her. In preschool, she zip-lined across an open field. She danced her way from first grade through early high school as she learned ballet, tap, jazz and hula. She played the flute in her high school marching band, attributing dance lessons with helping her get into formation relative to other people. She completed high school and attended Bluegrass Community and Technical College.

Her love of horses started when she was 2 or 3 years old and hasn’t waned. Recently, Alexis participated in the American Quarter Horse Congress, which she refers to as the “Super Bowl of quarter horse shows” because of its enormity and level of professionalism. She says the crowds don’t make her anxious or nervous.

“I don’t care about all the people watching me, I can’t see them anyway,” she said. “It’s just me and the horse in the ring. I go in wanting to do my best with my horse as a partnership. It’s not about the ribbons; it’s about having fun and doing the best I can.

“If there is something I want to do, even if it’s hard, I will find a way because it’s always worth it.”

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Sanders-Brown Center researcher awarded grant to study Alzheimer’s prevention

Ai-Ling Lin, PhD

The National Institutes of Health has awarded a five-year, $2.88 million grant to UK Sanders-Brown Center on Aging researcher Ai-Ling Lin to study a drug’s potential to prevent Alzheimer’s disease.

Lin, an assistant professor at the Sanders-Brown Center, hopes to demonstrate that low doses of Rapamycin, a drug commonly used in organ transplantation, can restore brain function and prevent memory loss. Rapamycin is commonly used to prevent rejection of a transplanted organ.

“We hope our research will demonstrate that Rapamycin prompts tangible benefit by preventing the cognitive decline associated with Alzheimer’s disease,” Lin said.

Unique testing methods

Her study is unique in that it will also assess whether a relatively new imaging concept called multimodal MRI is effective in measuring the success of other potential treatments. mMRI uses traditional MRI plus another form of imaging (CT scan or PET scan, for example) to provide complementary information.

“We have two eyes for a reason. You can function with just one, but eyesight is improved when both eyes work well,” Lin said. “mMRI follows the same concept: multiple layers of data increase accuracy.”

Lin will be studying the drug in mice with the gene associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s. She will validate mMRI results with biological and behavioral tests to confirm the test’s accuracy.

A win-win

It will be a while before Lin’s research will be ready for human clinical trials, but mMRI as an alternative to other testing methods has the potential for speedy adoption, as the mMRI methods are readily available to be used in humans.

“Being able to test a drug and also a means of assessing other drugs in the future is truly exciting,” Lin said.

Linda Van Eldik, Sanders-Brown director, says that this latest grant is another important step in Sanders-Brown’s race against Alzheimer’s.

“As many as 1 in 5 people carry the Alzheimer’s gene APOE4, so the idea that a readily-available drug already demonstrated to be safe in humans might prevent what is arguably the most devastating and expensive disease in modern history is exciting,” said Van Eldik. “It’s a win-win for science and for the people it serves.”

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UK researcher wins prestigious award to study pediatric cancer

UK Markey Cancer Center researcher Jessica Blackburn, PhD, will conduct innovative pediatric cancer research with the help of a prestigious National Institutes of Health’s New Innovator Award, a grant totaling $1.5 million over five years.

Blackburn, who came to UK from Harvard University in 2015, runs a basic science laboratory using zebrafish as an animal model. This new award will fund research to find causes of leukemia relapse in three ways:

  • Identifying the unique genetic signature of relapse-causing cells, using single-cell sequencing technology in both zebrafish leukemia models and patient samples.
  • Discovering how and where relapse-driving cells “hide” from chemotherapy in the body using live animal imaging techniques in zebrafish.
  • Finding new drugs that can specifically kill the cancer cells that cause relapse by screening thousands of compounds zebrafish.

“The hope for this project is that we will be able to provide new insights into the biology of what causes cancer relapse, not only to find better ways to treat it, but to develop treatment strategies that will prevent relapse from happening in the first place,” Blackburn said.

Zebrafish labs are far less common than labs that use mice as an animal model of cancer, but Blackburn notes that zebrafish models provide important research advantages, which can complement traditional mouse models.

“I think this work shows that zebrafish models of human diseases – like cancer – are being more widely accepted in the medical fields, and that more people are recognizing the important discoveries that can be made using zebrafish,” she said.

The NIH’s New Innovator Award was established in 2007 and supports unusually innovative research from early career investigators who are within 10 years of their final degree or clinical residency and have not yet received a research project grant or equivalent NIH grant.

It’s one of four prestigious awards in the NIH’s High-Risk, High-Reward program, which was created to support unconventional approaches to major challenges in biomedical and behavioral research. Applicants of the program are encouraged to think outside-the-box and to pursue exciting, trailblazing ideas in any area of research relevant to the NIH mission.

“I continually point to this program as an example of the creative and revolutionary research NIH supports,” said NIH Director Dr. Francis S. Collins. “The quality of the investigators and the impact their research has on the biomedical field is extraordinary.”

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