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The Power of Addiction: The Research Front


Continued from … The Power of Addiction: The Clinical Care Front

Addiction Research Illustration 2Tobacco: Smoking Out Solutions

Robert C. Klesges, PhD, MS, is a key player on the national and global stage in the field of research on smoking and public health.

A UTHSC professor, Dr. Klesges has been researching tobacco control and smoking cessation issues since the 1980s, has contributed to seven Surgeon General’s Reports on Smoking and Health, is the principal investigator on five National Institutes of Health (NIH) Studies and one Department of Defense study, and chairs the Community-Level Health Promotion Study Section for the NIH. He knows how to secure funding, how to conduct research, and how to collaborate with other investigators to achieve the most accurate outcomes.

So when COM Dean David Stern began to explore ways to secure and increase research dollars flowing into UTHSC and to improve community health at the same time, it was only natural that he sought to maximize the outstanding research already being conducted on campus by leaders like Dr. Klesges.

Klesges Team
(left to right, back) Karen Derefinko, PhD, MS; research leader Lauren Colvin, and Melissa Little, PhD; (front) Zoran Bursac, PhD, MPH; Robert Klesges, PhD, MS; Rebecca Krukowski, PhD

Dr. Stern turned to Dr. Klesges to set up and direct the Center for Population Sciences in the Department of Preventive Medicine. The center is charged with conducting research in areas that have a major impact on community health in the Mid-South and beyond.

“Basically, the dean recognized that there are limited resources to be able to be research-excellent in every part of preventive and health care medicine, and so he identified pockets of expertise that have tremendous growth potential in not only research but NIH funding possibilities,” Dr. Klesges says. The primary mission of NIH is now population health and disease prevention, so the center is poised to take advantage of multiple funding opportunities, he says.

“Our mission is to reduce health-related problems that are preventable, particularly ones that affect the population in the community we serve,” Dr. Klesges says. “We
focus on the three largest modifiable risk factors for cardiovascular disease and cancer, and these in order are tobacco and tobacco products, obesity, and substance abuse, more specifically alcohol and alcohol abuse.”

Dr. Klesges says the center started about three years ago, and has grown with the addition of Assistant Professor Rebecca Krukowski, PhD, followed by Assistant Professors Karen Derefinko, PhD, MS, and Melissa Little, PhD, and Professor Zoran Bursac, PhD, MPH.

“Basically, we’re a little unusual in the center in that we are at 90 percent research, but we do have that 10 percent service and teaching obligation,” Dr. Klesges says, adding that this model reflects NIH funding initiatives. “The way we like to do the teaching and service is outreach to help translate what we’re learning in our research grants to practice.”

The center is partnering with Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare and West Cancer Center to implement and evaluate smoking cessation programs with cancer patients and survivors. In collaboration with Benny Weksler, MD, MBA, FACS, chief of the Division of Thoracic Surgery at UTHSC, the center has helped launch a smoking cessation program at Methodist UT Hospital and the West Cancer Center for those at risk for lung cancer who undergo low-dose CT screening, which has been shown to reduce cancer mortality. Developing an effective smoking cessation program for this group could further reduce mortality rates, and is an example of translating the research model into clinical use.

The center has a portfolio of six NIH grants, according to Dr. Klesges. Among other areas of focus are developing an intervention for gestational weight gain, and a phone intervention to reduce the prevalence of problem drinking.

“I won’t be writing grants and improving health promotion for another 100 years or another 50 years, so my role is to bring in the next generation of researchers who can do the research so they can get the funding, and so they, in turn, can provide needed services,” Dr. Klesges says.

Alex Dopico, MD, PhD

Alcohol: Use vs. Misuse

Dean Stern has tapped another veteran researcher to lead a center focused on alcohol use, or more accurately, misuse.

Alex Dopico, MD, PhD, distinguished professor and chair of the Department of Pharmacology in the College of Medicine, is working to set up a Research Center for Alcohol Use Disorders. Bringing together key researchers from different departments, Dr. Dopico plans to focus not on the chronic condition of alcoholism, but on alcohol misuse, which more often accounts for the tragic results, from car accidents or teenage binge drinking, that end up in area emergency rooms.

“It has become clear that the societal costs of alcohol intake are not dependent only on alcoholism, but also, and mainly, on alcohol misuse,” says Dr. Dopico. Having spent more than 20 years researching the effects of alcohol on the arteries in the brain, he believes UTHSC can carve out a unique position of expertise in research on alcohol use disorders.

Dr. Dopico began laying the groundwork for the center last spring by leading the 2015 Frank M. Norfleet Forum for the Advancement of Health, which focused on “Populations Particularly Vulnerable to Alcohol Use Disorders.” The event brought together local and national experts to explore alcohol misuse across the age spectrum, from the genetic level, to fetal alcohol syndrome, to teenage drinking, to alcohol use in the aging population.

Dr. Dopico plans not only to seek NIH funding for research, but to appeal to the local community, where the consequences of alcohol misuse are most evident, to help fund this center.

“We are proud of the research and clinical excellence in the College of Medicine at UTHSC,” Dean Stern says. “It is our plan to continue to leverage that for the benefit of community, national and global health.”

Next … The Public Service Front