Research Day 2009 highlights both basic and clinical science initiatives

The University of Florida department of surgery focuses on translational research – transforming laboratory findings into improved patient care. On April 19, the department held its fifth annual Research Day to highlight accomplishments and foster collaborations.

“Research Day is our annual celebration of the scientific advancements achieved by our surgeons, scientists, and residents,” said Lyle Moldawer, Ph.D., professor of surgery and the department’s vice chairman for research. “But, over the past several years, Research Day has become much more than a mere celebration. It has become an opportunity for the faculty and residents to strengthen existing partnerships and establish new collaborations.”

Michael G. Sarr, M.D., the James C. Masson professor of surgery at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine in Rochester, Minn., opened the day as the Lester R. Dragstedt Visiting Professor. His talk focused on the biology of hernia formation and repair procedures.

After a series of oral and poster presentations the best basic science and clinical science abstract awards were presented, along with a plaque and $500 monetary award.

Jessica Marin, a UF undergraduate pre-med student, received the Best Basic Science Abstract Award for work with UF colorectal surgeon Emina Huang, M.D., on colon cancer stem cells, also called tumor initiating cells.

Marin showed that the growth of rare tumor initiating cells is influenced by the types of surrounding cells, one of which is called fibroblasts. In her experiments, fibroblasts from either a colon cancer environment or normal colon were placed together with colon cancer stem cells. The resulting experiments showed growth of fibroblasts from the cancer environment was far greater than those from the normal colon fibroblasts.

“These findings suggest that the interaction of the cancer stem cells with the environment may serve as targets for future therapy,” said Huang, an associate professor of surgery.

Anita Rajasekhar, M.D., a second-year fellow in the UF Department of Medicine’s hematology and oncology division, earned the Best Clinical Science Abstract Award for her work with UF acute care surgeon Darwin Ang, M.D., Ph.D., in the area of assessing the use of vascular filters, or IVCFs, to prevent pulmonary embolisms in trauma patients.

Despite lack of controlled clinical trials and conflicting evidence-based guidelines, the use of prophylactic IVCFs, or pIVCFs, in trauma patients is gaining favor. Rajasekhar reviewed the available literature and identified only cohort studies and case series. She found that although pIVCFs are not common protocol for trauma patients, there is statistically significant decrease in the occurrence of a pulmonary embolism when the patient receives a pIVCF compared with no pIVCF.

Rajasekhar noted that, on the other hand, the analysis of published case series found no significant benefit in reduction of pulmonary embolism with pIVCFs.

“Given the nature of retrospective observational studies and the methodological flaws associated with them, a well designed randomized controlled trial is desperately needed to determine the role of pIVCFs in trauma patients,” she said.

Ang, an assistant professor of surgery, also was recognized with the Faculty Research Career Development Award. The award provides faculty with a $25,000 grant to help seed their research initiatives.

His work focuses on using both clinical and genomic data to help guide therapy and to predict which patients may be more susceptible to specific complications. The grant will help him gather benchmark data about hospital acquired complications, determine the clinical and biological causes of specific complications, and then translate this data into a model that will help guide therapies given to patients to reduce their risk of a acquiring a hospital-based complication post surgery. Examples of these complications include post-trauma organ failure and death.

Ang said he feels very fortunate to be part of a department of surgery that support’s young investigators.

“Not all institutions have the foresight and dedication to their staff to understand that in order to achieve success in research there has to be some initial investment,” said Ang, who received both his doctorate degrees and general surgery residency training at the University of Florida. Ang rejoined the UF College of Medicine and department of surgery last summer as a faculty member after completing a surgery critical care fellowship and a Masters of Public Health at the University of Washington, in Seattle. “Personally, this grant will allow me to push myself harder and it will create new opportunities in research.”

Concluding the day’s events were discussions about the newest research initiatives within the department. Ang spoke about building clinical outcomes research, UF thoracic and cardiovascular surgeon Charles Klodell, M.D., spoke about the latest advances with ventricular assist devices, and UF vascular surgeon Peter Nelson, M.D., discussed how systemic inflammation may predict the failure of a lower extremity bypass procedure.

Moldawer said the department continues to make steady growth in expanding its research presence.

“Despite a difficult funding environment, the faculty has made outstanding progress in the development of its research programs, and the department is well on its way to reaching the elite levels nationally,” he said. “Research Day serves to highlight that progress and re-emphasizes the importance of research in clinical surgery.”