Emeritus Faculty Association news March - April 2011
Friday April 1st, usual time and place 10.30am Javits Room, 2nd floor library.
Distinguished Professor of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology Eckard Wimmer will talk on "Studies of the Life Cycle and Pathobiology of a Chemical called Poliovirus".
"We are excited about viruses, viewing them either as chemical entities whose intriguing facility of proliferation is fascinating, or as horrifying infectious agents causing appalling diseases in their host. Accordingly, research in our laboratory can roughly be divided into two general topics: viral replication and genetics at the cellular level, and mechanisms of viral pathogenensis in a host organism. Our research focuses on RNA viruses, particularly picornaviruses, whose prototype is poliovirus. Picornaviruses, are estimated to infect 6 billion humans per year, cause a bewildering array of disease syndromes (paralysis, meningitis, heart disease, hepatitis, common cold, etc). Viruses are viewed to reside at the threshold between dead and living matter. This definition is flawed, however, because humans have not come to a consensus about the definition of life. When we chemically synthesized poliovirus according to its genomic sequence in the absence of natural template we have shifted the definition of viruses towards non-living matter."
Eckard Wimmer obtained his Doctor rerum naturalium degree from the University of Goettingen in 1962, and came to Stony Brook in 1974.
In 2002, Dr. Wimmer and colleagues synthesized and generated poliovirus, the first artificial synthesis of any virus. For this work he was elected to the rank of Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in December 2009. In more recent research, Wimmer and a team including Steve Skiena of Computer Science (our speaker of March 2010) among others, used a novel method to weaken (attenuate) influenza virus by way of designing hundreds of mutations to its genetic code to create an effective synthetic influenza virus vaccine. They found this vaccine effective and safe against influenza in mice. Reported online and in the July issue of Nature Biotechnology, the method may be a major step in developing more effective and safe vaccines against influenza, which claims 250,000 to 500,000 lives annually worldwide, partly because existing vaccines are not fully effective.
On the 17th of this month (March) The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences will present the M.W. Beijerinck Virology Prize to Wimmer as "one of the most renowned and influential virologists today, and one of the founding fathers of modern molecular virology".
On May 27 of this year a symposium will be given in honor of his 75th birthday (at the Wang Center, 8:45am to 5:05 pm)
Judy Wishnia took time off from her usual Friday UUP meeting to remind us of the severity of the upcoming state budget. All over the SUNY system program contractions and retrenchments are in prospect but the effective 30% cut to SBU exceeds all others because of the zeroing out of the medical center state allocation. This may require as many as 600 - 750 layoffs unless the present proposals are softened. At this time it is important for the union to be as strong as possible. Judy reminded emeriti who are not yet union members of the benefits, in particular the hearing aid and vision programs.
Then chair Al Carson introduced Dean of Health Sciences, Dr. Kenneth Kaushansky to speak on "The Health Sciences at Stony Brook University: The Path Forward". His talk comprised three parts: (1) Where we are now (2) Plans for the next 5-10 years (3) The state budget and its impact.
1: The current operation of the SBU Medical Center can be summarized by these statistics: 496 undergraduates; 166 graduate students; 481 medical residents; 99 post-doctoral fellows; 634 research projects; $75M research funding; national ranking 30-40 percentile. Per annum: 31,000 inpatient stays; 84,000 emergency room and 500,000 outpatient visits; $55M state funding; $94M care to Suffolk residents. Observed/expected mortality ratio 0.86; 26 of NY best doctors.
2: 2011-2016 strategic plan: Recognizing that resources are limited, they cannot be spread equally among all areas. We must emphasize the nascent critical masses, in particular the NIH-sponsored research programs in neurological diseases, cancer, cardiovascular disorders, biomedical imaging, regenerative medicine, and infectious diseases. Two new buildings are planned to be started this year (depending on successful bond issues) which would house a new children's hospital, a new radiological suite including new experimental imaging, an expanded cancer center, expanded neuroscience center, a needed large auditorium, a new restaurant in which researchers from different disciplines can get together, and a new biomedical informatics center in collaboration with Dean Shamash of Engineering. These last two are part of Dr Kaushansky's bridge building ethic (his hobby is running across real bridges in the locations to which he travels on business). Other bridges he discussed as being important were to other West campus departments and good communication with other hospitals, affiliated physicians, and community practitioners. Hopefully also the new buildings will also soften the appearance of the Health Sciences campus somewhat, which Dr Kaushansky characterized as the brutalism style of architecture (in a similar way perhaps that the West campus has progressively softened its architecture from the original neo-penal style?).
3: Of course, all of this will also be dependent on how the budgets turn out. The Governer's present budget proposal which is supposed to be finalized in the legislature by April 1 is not a cut but rather a total elimination of the state allocation to the three state medical centers. In fact if the budget were finalized in its present form, Dr Kaushansky believes that the Downstate medical center in Brooklyn would have to close its doors entirely by midyear, to be followed perhaps by Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse not too long after. The finances of the SB medical center are in somewhat better shape so he does not foresee an outright closing, but the situation is making it more difficult to bring a cross fertilization of the research in the East and West campuses. Indeed Dr Kaushansky, who just came on board in July, has found that one of his primary tasks is to spend a good part of his time in Albany getting on a first name basis with state politicians.
During an active discussion session questions were asked about medical billing, computerization of medical records, need to educate more primary care physicians, and on how MD and non MD scientists can collaborate on equal basis.
Postscript - A Little History
The following was not discussed by Dean Kaushansky, but has been compiled by your correspondent on the basis that those who forget history are condemned to relive it.
During the middle years of the past decade there were some management problems at the hospital (before the present health science chiefs were brought in) and some amount of re-organization fervor in Albany, where three proposals were made which seem to have come from a similar place as the present budget proposal:
1: That the hospital be re-organized as a distinct not-for-profit organization separate from SUNY (legislation filed by Sen. Kenneth P. LaValle (E Suffolk), who has now once again assumed the chair of the NY State Senate Higher Education Committee).
2: That the three SUNY medical centers be privatized, and both the medical school and hospital separated from the University (suggested by the "Commission on Health Care Facilities in the 21st Century" originally appointed by Governor Pataki).
3: That the SB School of Medicine and Hospital be separated from SBU to create a 65th SUNY institution, reporting directly to Albany.
In response the SUNY chancellor set up a "Blue Ribbon Commission" which issued its report in January 2007, see: http://www.stonybrookmedicalcenter.org/disclaimer/publicnotices . This commission was chaired by Professor Mitchell T. Rabkin MD of Harvard Medical School, who had also served for 30 years as CEO of Boston Beth Israel Hospital, and the report findings included this:
" Recent proposals have surfaced to separate the hospital from the School of Medicine, and to separate both from the University. The Commission strongly opposes those proposals, which it feels will subvert the excellence of the academic medical center through distancing clinicians from laboratory investigators in biomedical science and in other scientific fields throughout the University at a time when greater intellectual interchange is called for. Creativity in the development of new insights into disease and health and in the resulting new techniques and treatments that result depends upon greater dialogue among a growing variety of scientific disciplines. . . When an academic teaching hospital is separated from ownership by the medical school or university, the possibility grows for divergent interests, and particularly so in financial areas and in the long term willingness to commit investments to teaching and research to the extent needed by a highly-rated medical school. . . The impact over time is to diminish the quality of both patient care and service to its local community and the state. . . Separating the School of Medicine from the University goes against the direction of scholarship in biomedical research in the 21st century. It is increasingly rare to see research scientists working in isolation in their laboratories. While they will independently generate hypotheses for research study, those ideas are often triggered and typically are enriched and expanded through interactions with other scientists who may be based far outside biomedically-oriented pursuits. The intellectual colleagues of biomedical research scientists may be organic chemists, engineers, mathematicians, computational scientists, plant biologists, anthropologists, behavioral scientists and others in university departments other than those of the Medical School. Furthermore, in carrying out their laboratory experiments and clinical translational research, medical school physician-scientists often need the expertise and active collaboration of scientists in these other areas. . . To separate the medical school from easy interaction with diverse colleagues throughout the university is, in our opinion, a move to hamper medical school scholarship, research innovation and clinical advance."
Dean Kaushansky could not have said it better.