Carl June, M.D., far left, the Penn director of the Parker Institute, joined other members on stage with news personality Katie Couric, far right.

Penn Joins First-of-its-Kind Research Collaboration to Fight Cancer 

The University of Pennsylvania has joined an unprece­dented cancer research effort, the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy. The institute brings together six of the na­tion’s top medical schools and cancer centers to work toward accelerating breakthrough immunotherapy research that will turn more cancers into curable diseases.

The venture is backed by a $250 million gift from the Parker Foundation, making it the largest single contribution ever made to the field of immunotherapy. The Parker Founda­tion was founded by Sean Parker – who cofounded Napster and was an early president of Facebook – with a $600 million gift intended to spur innovations in the life sciences, global public health, and civic engagement. 

“We are tremendously excited to join this collaboration, which will allow us to investigate promising new immuno­therapy avenues for the treatment of cancer outside of our in­stitutional silos in very unique ways,” said the Parker Institute’s Penn director, Carl June, M.D., the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy in the Department of Pathology and Labo­ratory Medicine and director of translational research in the Abramson Cancer Center. “Working together will enable us to make quicker progress as we work to translate our laboratory findings into clinical trials.”

Initial funding of $10 to $15 million has been awarded to set up the Parker Institute at Penn. This investment will con­tinue to grow on an annual basis via additional project grants, shared resources, and central funding. The funding will sup­port laboratory studies and clinical trials, recruitment of fac­ulty, and support for early-career investigators who will train at Penn. Robert Vonderheide, M.D., D.Phil., the Hanna Wise Professor in Cancer Research and associate director of trans­lational research in the Abramson Cancer Center, and John Wherry, Ph.D., a professor of microbiology and director of Penn’s Institute for Immunology, will serve as co-directors of the Parker Institute at Penn.

The Parker Institute includes more than 40 laboratories and 300 researchers from Penn and five other leading centers: Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center; Stanford Medicine; the University of California, Los Angeles; the University of California, San Francisco; and the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center. In a unique agreement among the centers, the administration of intellectual property will be shared, enabling all researchers to have immediate access to a broad range of core discoveries.

The Parker Institute’s scientific advisors and site leaders have laid out a scientific roadmap which allows the Parker In­stitute scientists to make big bets on major cross-cutting col­laborative research projects, as well as to fund individual re­search projects at its sites. At Penn, initial projects will cover a wide range of both basic science and clinical areas, including studies to test the ability of oncolytic adenoviruses to enhance T cell therapy efficacy, and cancer prevention vaccines.

vital_1N.I.H. Panel Cites Center’s Success

A new five-year N.I.H. grant to the Penn Center for Musculoskeletal Disorders will support research aimed at improving the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of conditions such as osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, low back pain, and rotator cuff tears.

A Rise in Opioid Prescriptions
A recent online study in JAMA by Penn researchers traced a steady rise in opioid painkiller prescriptions provided by physicians to surgical patients for relatively minor procedures. Across all four surgeries included in the study, the percentages of patients who obtained and filled opioid prescriptions sharply increased from 2004 to 2012, rising as much as 18 percent for patients un­dergoing knee arthroscopy.

“These data show us a con­cerning trend,” said Mark Neuman, M.D., M.Sc., senior author of the study. Neuman, an assistant professor of anesthesiology and critical care and director of the Penn Center for Perioperative Outcomes Research and Transformation, said that additional work is needed “to define better strategies for treating postoperative pain safely and effectively in the future.”

In The Top Five Again: Perelman Shines

The Perelman School of Medicine was ranked the 3rd best research-oriented medical school in the United States in the annual medical school survey by U.S. News & World Report. This is the 19th year in a row the school has been ranked among the top five medical schools. The Perelman School also ranked among the nation’s top medical schools in three areas of specialty training: a first-place ranking in Pediatrics and honors in Women’s Health (#3) and Internal Medicine (#4). The School of Medicine is also #11 in the rankings of medical schools specializing in primary care.

The U.S. News rankings placed the Perelman School of Medicine in a three-way tie with Johns Hopkins University and University of California, San Francisco. Harvard Uni­versity and Stanford University were ranked first and second.

The medical school rankings, released annually in the U.S. News & World Report “Best Graduate Schools” issue, are based on statistical indicators that measure the quality of a school’s faculty, research, and students. Information is ob­tained through surveys of program directors, academics, and other professionals. Criteria used include peer assessment surveys, research activity, MCAT scores, and NIH funding.  

M.D. + J.D.

Cross-disciplinary study has been a longstanding hallmark of the curriculum in both the University’s Perelman School of Medicine and the Law School. They have just announced a joint J.D./M.D degree program for students pursuing careers at the intersection of law and medicine. The new program will begin accepting applications for the 2017-18 academic year.

vital_2As a Standard, BMI May Not Be A-OK

Packing on a few pounds may not be such a bad thing.

According to a recent study in JAMA involving more than 100,000 adults in Denmark, as a group, overweight people are living the longest nowadays. The new analysis fuels continu­ing debate about what’s a healthy body mass index — espe­cially in light of rising obesity rates, improved heart health treatments, and other factors influencing health and longevity.

“This is a very carefully done study,” said Rexford S. Ahima, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of medicine and director of the obe­sity unit in the Institute for Diabetes, Obesity, and Metabo­lism. Commenting in Science News, he said that the findings strengthen the notion that “BMI as a number alone may not be sufficient to predict health and risk of death. It has to be taken within context.” Ahima was not involved in the research but has analyzed previous studies urging a rethinking of how BMI influences mortality.

Researchers screen for obesity by calculating BMI – a pop­ular but fairly crude measurement of body fat reached by di­viding a person’s weight in kilograms by the square of height in meters. People with BMIs between 18.5 and 24.9 are con­sidered normal. A BMI between 25 and 29.9 is “overweight”; 30 and above is “obese.”

Many studies suggest that obese individuals face a higher risk of heart disease, stroke, and other ills. But a 2013 meta- analysis of 97 studies found that being overweight was associated with lower risk of death than having a normal BMI – a surprising finding that echoed a 2005 study by the same researchers.

From 1976 to 2013, BMI associated with lowest risk of death increased from 23.7 to 27. That falls squarely in the overweight category. Obese individuals also had the same mortality risk as people in the normal range, the analysis found. That trend held even when researchers took into ac­count potentially confounding factors including age, sex, smoking, and a history of cardiovascular disease or cancer.

Two Named to Blue Ribbon Panel to Inform Cancer “Moonshot” Initiative

Chi Van Dang, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania, and Peter C. Adamson, M.D., G.M.E. ’87, professor of pediatrics and director of Experimental Therapeutics in Oncology at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, have been named to the Blue Ribbon Panel that will help inform the scientific direc­tion at the National Cancer Institute. Vice President Joe Biden launched the National Cancer Moonshot Initiative in January during a visit to the Abramson Center.

The panel — made up of clinical leaders, patient advocates, members of the pharmaceutical industry and experts in im­munology, cancer prevention, bioinformatics, and genom­ics, among others — will serve as a working group of the presidentially appointed National Cancer Advisory Board and will provide scientific guidance from thought leaders in the cancer community. The effort aims to make greater headway in developing cancer vaccines, highly sensitive approaches to early detection, and enhanced data sharing.

“This Blue Ribbon Panel will ensure that, as the National Institutes of Health allocates new resources through the Moonshot, decisions will be grounded in the best science,” Biden said in a news release. 

Among those also named to the Blue Ribbon Panel was Neal Kassell, M.D. ’72, professor of neurosurgery at the University of Virginia.

Yelp May Help

With 142 million unique monthly visitors, the online crowd-sourced Yelp wields a fair amount of influence when it comes to helping people chose where to dine, where to stay on vacation, and where to have their hair done. And where to go for their health care as well?

A recent study published in Health Affairs by researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine explored that very topic. On Yelp’s site, patients have been able to use the same rankings – from one to five stars – that people have used to evaluate other services and businesses. The Penn researchers com­pared approximately 17,000 Yelp reviews of 1,352 hospitals to reviews of the same institutions by the Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems. The HCAHPS Survey (pronounced “H-Caps”) is a standardized survey and data-collection tool that has been used since 2006 to measure patients’ perspectives of hospital care in 11 differ­ent categories.

But are those 11 categories sufficient to measure patients’s concerns? Raina M. Merchant, M.D., M.S.H. P., the study’s se­nior author, noted that 42 percent of U.S. Internet users in 2012 reported looking at social media for health-related con­sumer reviews. Merchant, an assistant professor of emergency medicine and director of the Penn Social Media and Health Innovation Lab, added that, “Meanwhile, only six percent of Americans had heard of the government website where the HCAHPS survey is reported, as of 2008.”

What’s Not Covered – and What Could Be

In fact, four of the top five Yelp topics most strongly associ­ated with positive Yelp review ratings were not covered by HCAHPS domains. These included: caring doctors, nurses, and staff; comforting; surgery/procedure and peri-op; and la­bor and delivery. “These topics that are covered within the Yelp reviews are important because they relate to the inter­personal relationships of patients with physicians, nurses, and staff,” said the study’s lead author, Benjamin L. Ranard, a ju­nior fellow at the Penn Social Media and Health Innovation Lab and a combined M.D./M.S. student in health policy re­search at the Perelman School. “Prospective patients are likely to want to know how caring and comforting caregivers are in various departments of a hospital.”

In addition, two of the top five Yelp categories most strongly associated with negative Yelp review ratings – insurance and billing, and cost of hospital visit – are not covered by HCAHPS domains.

Citing previous research, the authors of the Health Affairs study note that formal surveys such as HCAHPS suffer from low response rates and typically entail significant delays be­tween hospitalization and public reporting of results. While the researchers write that reviews on social media sites are not currently randomized, and are largely uncurated, unvalidated, and subject to gaming, they add that the reviews are free, con­tinuously updated, and often reveal in precise detail what the problem or positive occurrence was that affected the patient’s or family member’s experience.

“In addition, patients’ perceptions of what matters most to them can change over time,” Merchant said. “HCAHPS may not be able to respond as agilely to these kinds of changes as social media.”  – Katie Delach

Reviews Negative and Positive

The negative Yelp hospital reviews are not for the faint of heart. A sampling of hospitals across the United States:

“[This] ER is the absolute worse unless you have a gunshot wound or something weird growing out the side of your head! Was there for hours with a friend. . . . But 8 hours in an ER and no conclusion to what happened is RIDICULOUS!!”

“The ER is horrible!!!!! My 18 year old daughter hurt her foot . . . went to the ER at 10:30 in the morning and got out at 6:30 at night. What did they do for her in all that time. . . . An X-Ray and a pair of crutches. . . . They did not even offer her a glass of water or something to eat in all that time!” 

But in contrast:

“I had surgery . . . and (almost) everyone was fabulous – surgeon, nurses, etc. . . . All test results, appointments, etc., get automatically uploaded and any doctor in their network can access the information. In-patient wards have family lounges with kitchenette and seating areas. The in-patient rooms are very quiet at night – the nurses close the doors but monitor through special windows out to the hallway.”

“Where do I begin. If I could’ve gave them six stars, I would’ve!! . . . I had a kidney transplant. . . . The staff who got me ready for surgery were really nice. They helped assure me everything is going to go fine when I got nervous.”  

Honors & Awards

vital_bartolomeiMarisa Bartolomei, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Cell & Developmental Biology and co-director of the Epi­genetics Program, has been awarded the 2017 Genetics Soci­ety Medal. The award recognizes outstanding research contri­butions to genetics. She will deliver an accompanying lecture and receive the medal next year at the Society, which is based in London.

Bartolomei’s laboratory focuses on the study of ge­nomic imprinting and X-in­activation in mice. In most cases, people inherit one copy of genes from each par­ent. But in genomic imprint­ing, just one of the two ver­sions is activated. One im­printed gene that Bartolomei studies, H19, may help suppress tumors by preventing cancer cells from growing and dividing. In X-inactivation, one of the two copies of the X chromosome in female mammals is inactivated.

Bartolomei joined Penn as an assistant professor in 1993. In 2011 she received a MERIT award from the National Institutes of Health, and she was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2014. Bartolomei is a member of the editorial boards of Human Molecular Genetics and Molecular and Cellular Biology as well as associate editor for PLOS Genetics. She has published approximately 120 papers in peer-reviewed publications.

vital_dingesDavid F. Dinges, Ph.D., chief of the Division of Sleep and Chronobiology and di­rector of the Unit for Experi­mental Psychiatry in the Perelman School, has re­ceived the 2016 Pioneer Award from the National Space Biomedical Research Institute. The award recog­nizes an individual each year whose efforts and accomplishments have blazed new trails on behalf of the Institute, its partnership with NASA, and the space biomedical community at large.

Dinges has conducted studies through peer-review grant funding from the Institute since its inception in 1997 and has conducted additional grant-funded research for NASA during this period. His recent research for NASA includes studies of sleep, alertness, and neurobehavioral responses of astronauts on the International Space Station and on people living in iso­lated, confined, and extreme space-analog environments. He is currently leading a group of scientists integrating a suite of validated “Behavioral Core Measures” for use by NASA in spaceflight, space analogs, and exploration missions.

Dinges has more than 300 scholarly publications whose findings have influenced public policy, public health recom­mendations, and work schedules for professionals in safety-sensitive occupations, such as astronauts, pilots, health care professionals, commercial drivers, and first responders.

Benjamin Aaron Garcia, Ph.D., a Presidential Professor of Biochemistry & Biophysics, was named the recipient of the 2016 Protein Science Young Investigator Award, given to a sci­entist who has made an important contribution to the study of proteins within the first eight years of an independent ca­reer. His pioneering research involves developing new mass spectrometry methods and bioinformatics computational tools to examine critical modifications in cellular proteins that alter and control their functions. Garcia, who earned a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Virginia, has received more than a dozen major awards, including a Presidential Early Career Award and a National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator Award.

Kiran Musunuru, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H., an associate professor of cardiovascular medicine and genetics, has been honored with a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. The award recognizes Musunuru’s outstanding achievements in research on the genetic factors behind heart attack, sudden car­diac death, and other cardiovascular disorders. Musunuru offi­cially joined Penn in March from Harvard University.

The Presidential Award Program was created to honor young scientists and engineers who, in their early research careers, exemplify exceptional potential in the field. Musunuru received up to a five-year research grant from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute to support his focus of ana­lyzing the genetics behind cardiovascular and metabolic dis­eases by using human models – genetically modified human pluripotent stem cells and stem-cell-derived tissues – and “humanized” mouse models to study genetic variations. 

In tandem with his biomedical research, Musunuru is a practicing cardiologist and a teacher. He received his medical degree from Weill Cornell Medical College, his Ph.D. degree from The Rockefeller University, and his M.P.H. degree from Johns Hopkins. 

vital_sehgalAmita Sehgal, Ph.D., the John Herr Musser Professor of Neuroscience and director of the Chronobiology Program in the Perelman School of Medicine, has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, considered one of the highest honors accorded a U.S. scientist or engineer. Sehgal studies the molecular and genetic components of sleep and circadian, or 24-hour, rhythms. Using the fruit fly, she and others have characterized a molecular clock present in flies and humans.

Her lab has also developed the fly as a model system for study­ing sleep, showing that the rest phase in flies is a sleeplike state, helping to answer important questions about the essential need for sleep. Sehgal received the Stanley Cohen Senior Faculty Research Award from Penn Medicine and is associate editor of the Journal of Clinical Investigation and associate editor for the Journal of Neuroscience. She is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.

Sehgal was selected along with two other Penn faculty members: Marsha Lester, Ph.D., the Edmund J. Kahn Distinguished Professor in the Department of Chemis­try, and Andrea Liu, Ph.D., the Hepburn Professor of Physics in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, both in Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences.  

Two Elected to Association of American Physicians

Two Penn Medicine physicians – Ebbing Lautenbach, M.D., M.P.H., M.S.C.E. ’01, chief of the division of infectious diseases and the Robert Austrian Professor in the Department of Medicine, and Ben Z. Stanger, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor of medicine and associate investigator of the Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute – were elected to the Association of American Physicians.

Lautenbach, also a profes­sor in the Department of Biostatistics and Epidemiol­ogy, has focused his work on the control of bacterial infec­tions in both health care and community settings. His re­search has concentrated primarily on understanding and cur­tailing the emergence and further spread of antibiotic-resis­tant pathogens such as methi­cillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and multi­drug-resistant gram negative organisms. More recent work has focused on the role of biomarkers to inform the use of antibiotics. 

Stanger and his lab study how cells acquire their spe­cialized features and their ability to adapt to new roles when given exposure to new, different conditions. His work has focused on gastrointestinal cancer and tissue regeneration. Stanger received his medical degree and his doctorate from Harvard Medical School and came to the University of Pennsylvania in 2006.  

Pathologists Honored

The American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) has named two faculty members in the Perelman School of Medicine, Kevin Alby, Ph.D., and Roseann Wu, M.D., to the society’s 2016 “40 under Forty” list. Both are assistant professors in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. The award honors the top 40 pathologists, residents, and laboratory professionals under the age of 40 who are mak­ing significant contributions to the profession. Nominees represent the achievements and qualities important to the pathology and laboratory sciences fields and stand out as future laboratory leaders.

Alby received his doctorate in pathobiology from Brown University and completed a fellowship in clinical microbiology at the University of North Carolina Hospitals. He is an assis­tant director of the Clinical Microbiology Laboratory at HUP, where he focuses on implementing new technology such as mul­tiplex PCR assays and MALDI-TOF mass spectrometry. He is focused on identifying resistant bacteria sooner and develop­ing molecular tests to detect viral illness. The ASCP cited Alby for his active role in professional organizations.

Wu received her medical degree and master’s degree in public health from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. She took her AP/CP residency at Massachusetts General Hospital, where she was chief resident and a Priscilla D. Taft Fellow in Cytopathology. Also specializing in cytopathology at HUP, she is a member of the Anatomic Pathology Division. The ASCP cited Wu for her use of innovative methods for delivering education and involvement in adaptive e-learning initiatives. Penn is one of only six institutions with two or more honorees this year.  

They Said It

“Study after study shows that screening saves lives,” said Chyke A. Doubeni, M.D., M.P.H., chair and the Presidential Associate Professor of Family Medicine and Community Health, referring to colorectal cancer. It is the second highest cause of cancer death in the United States, expected to claim the lives of an estimated 49,190 people in 2016. As Doubeni notes as lead author of a commen­tary in Gastroenterology, “many of those in the group most affected by this deadly dis­ease are unable to afford the screening they critically need. We must renew efforts to en­sure equitable access to and use of disease prevention, detection, and treatment services for colorectal cancer.”


“I don’t think there’s any doubt: Child mal­treatment is our number one public health issue, and we need to do more about it, and Spotlight is just the beginning,” said Steven J. Berkowitz, M.D., an associate professor of clinical psychiatry and director of the Penn Center for Youth and Family Trauma Response and Recovery. Berkowitz was one of the panel­ists at a recent Levin Family Dean’s Forum, sponsored by the School of Arts & Sciences, which focused on this year’s Academy Award recipient for best picture and best original screenplay. Spotlight tells the story of the Boston Globe team that exposed the Roman Catholic Church’s cover-up of sexual abuse of children by priests. Child abuse, Berkowitz said, “happens in every institution that works with children in this country.”


“Less is more – less time in bed is better,” said Michael Perlis, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychiatry and director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program. He commented on new guidelines from the American College of Physi­cians stating that cognitive behavioral therapy should be the first-line treatment for insomnia. CBT has been shown to work for 50-70% of pa­tients. “If you are awake, spend that time some­where else,” Perlis told WHYY’s Newsworks. “That is the rule of thumb. There’s no pill on this planet that will give you sustainability of treatment gains after treatment is discontinued.”

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