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IU School of Medicine researchers named inaugural August M. Watanabe Scholars


INDIANAPOLIS — Scientists pursuing innovative treatments for children with HIV in Africa and for individuals suffering from osteoporosis and osteoarthritis will get the chance to learn under an internationally known leader in global health thanks to an innovative scholarship awarded by the Indiana University School of Medicine.

Melissa A. Kacena, Ph.D., associate professor of orthopaedic surgery at the IU School of Medicine, and Rachel C. Vreeman, M.D., assistant research professor of medicine at the IU School of Medicine, were named August M. Watanabe Translational Scholars during the Fifth Annual Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute Meeting on Sept. 13 at the IU School of Medicine in Indianapolis.

Under the program, Drs. Kacena and Vreeman will benefit from the mentorship of Tadataka “Tachi” Yamada, M.D., past president of the Global Health Program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who spoke during the Indiana CTSI meeting. Dr. Yamada is the recipient of the August M. Watanabe Prize, a $100,000 award presented by the IU School of Medicine to a scientist who has made a significant contribution to the field of translational science. Translational research is the practice of taking results from medical research in the lab and academic clinic into safe and innovative treatments and therapies used in general medical practice.

“I’m pleased to offer the opportunity to receive mentorship from such a giant in the fields of translational research and global health to two of our most outstanding fellows,” said Anantha Shekhar, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Indiana CTSI and associate dean for translational research and Raymond E. Houk Professor of Psychiatry at the IU School of Medicine. “Although it’s not a requirement of being named a Watanabe Scholar, it happens that this year’s recipients exemplify a basic scientist performing translational research moving a discovery from the lab bench toward improving human health, and a physician-scientist advancing patient outcomes in the real world through clinical translational work in the community.”

The Indiana CTSI is a $30 million National Institutes of Health-funded collaboration among Indiana University, Purdue University and the University of Notre Dame that aims to accelerate the translational research process across Indiana and beyond. Earlier in their careers, Drs. Kacena and Vreeman were named Indiana CTSI Young Investigators, a two-year fellowship program. They also received additional Indiana CTSI pilot funds, under which they gained early support critical to their future success, including larger awards from federal grant agencies to advance their research.

A basic scientist, Dr. Kacena’s work focuses on improving bone health, including a study on the potential of thrombopoietin to re-grow broken bone with fewer side effects. Drugs currently on the market frequently regrow too much bone — pinching nerves, inflaming surrounding tissue and inhibiting motion — and have been linked to an increased risk of developing cancer. Her research suggests the compound, which has been used for the treatment of blood disorders, is unique in its ability to stimulate both osteoblasts, which create bone, and osteoclasts, which destroy bone, reducing unregulated bone growth.

About a half million people suffer painful and debilitating fractures each year as a result of tumor removal, infections, car crashes or wounds of war, Dr. Kacena added. Her work to improve this situation is supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health and Department of Defense. She is also the co-inventor on two patents filed by the IU Research and Technology Corp.

“It’s truly an honor to have been selected as one of the scholars for this award,” Dr. Kacena said. “The Indiana CTSI has been a huge proponent and supporter of me and my work, and the opportunity to receive mentorship from Dr. Yamada, whose career has done so much to show us how research findings can translate into clinical care, will be an amazing experience.”

A physician scientist, Dr. Vreeman’s work aims to improve the long-term care of HIV-infected children in resource-limited nations, with a focus on children’s adherence to HIV therapies and the disclosure of HIV status to HIV-infected children. Her research projects include a study on the effectiveness of the HIV drug Nevirapine in malnourished children; the use of wirelessly enabled medication bottles to electronically monitor children’s medication adherence; and evaluation of a counseling intervention to help children understand their HIV status. Her research takes place within AMPATH, the Academic Model Providing Access to Healthcare, a partnership between the IU School of Medicine, Moi University School of Medicine and Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital, which provides care to 24,000 children and 125,000 adults with HIV across 25 clinics in Kenya.

HIV affects about 3.5 million children in the world, with 90 percent in sub-Saharan Africa, Dr. Vreeman said. The need to improve adherence to medications is a critical step in transforming HIV from a fatal disease to a chronic condition in which children may grow into thriving, healthy adults. Her work to address these needs is supported by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health and the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief program.

“It is my privilege to accept the honor of being named a Watanabe Scholar, particularly as Dr. Yamada is being given the Watanabe Award,” Dr. Vreeman said. “I am grateful to the Indiana CTSI for their support over the years, and I feel extremely honored to accept the award alongside Dr. Yamada who has made such major contributions to global health.”

The Watanabe Prize, presented biennially by the IU School of Medicine, is named after the late August M. Watanabe, an IU School of Medicine alumnus whose illustrious career spanned academia and the pharmaceutical and life sciences industries. He served as chairman of the Department of Medicine, the largest department at the IU School of Medicine, before joining Eli Lilly and Company, where he rose to become president of Lilly Research Laboratories and executive vice president of the company. After his retirement, he took on the role of chairman of the board of directors of BioCrossroads. Family, friends and colleagues established the Watanabe Prize following Dr. Watanabe’s death in 2009, with the Eli Lilly and Company Foundation providing a generous leadership grant.