UConn Health News

UConn Health Leads Search for Syphilis Vaccine

Dr. Juan Salazar, left, and Dr. Justin Radolf in Radolf's lab at UConn Health in Farmington.

Dr. Juan Salazar, left, and Dr. Justin Radolf in Radolf's lab at UConn Health in Farmington.


While cases of syphilis in Europe first were recorded over 500 years ago, no vaccine candidates have ever advanced to human clinical trials. A new, international center led by the UConn School of Medicine and Connecticut Children’s aims to change that.

UConn will receive up to $11 million over five years from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to develop a vaccine for this centuries-old disease.

Syphilis poses serious health consequences internationally and in the United States. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 10.7 million people between the ages of 15 and 49 had syphilis in 2012, and about 5.6 million people contract it every year.

“An effective syphilis vaccine would represent a triumph for biomedical research over an ailment that has defied conventional public health strategies for prevention and control,” says Dr. Justin Radolf, professor of medicine and pediatrics at UConn School of Medicine and co-principal investigator with Dr. M. Anthony Moody of Duke University. “If successful, the scientific and public health impact of our approach will extend well beyond syphilis and establish a model to tackle other pathogens.”

Syphilis is primarily transmitted through direct contact with an infectious lesion during unprotected sex, and can also be passed from expecting mothers to their unborn children. Syphilis is the second leading cause of stillbirth and miscarriage worldwide. If left untreated, it can cause strokes, dementia, and other neurological diseases in any infected person.

Past attempts to control the syphilis epidemic by treating infected individuals and their partners have proved unsuccessful, largely due to difficulties diagnosing the disease, limited access to care for certain high-risk individuals, and limited resources for effective contact investigation. Furthermore, syphilis and HIV are recognized as “syndemics,” in which both infections can increase the risk of acquisition and transmission of the other.

The international study team comprises researchers from UConn School of Medicine; Connecticut Children’s; the Duke Human Vaccine Institute; the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases; UNC Project-Malawi; Masaryk University in the Czech Republic; and Southern Medical University in Guangzhou, China.

“This center combines the unique capabilities of UConn Health’s Spirochete Research Lab with the rest of the study team, which has world-class vaccine research infrastructure, international health expertise, and unparalleled knowledge of bacterial genomics to achieve our long-term objective,” says Dr. Juan Salazar, chair of pediatrics at UConn Health and physician-in-chief at Connecticut Children’s.

ConnectiCare Passage Plan Patients Now Accepted at UConn Health


Physicians at UConn Health recently began accepting ConnectiCare passage plan patients. “Passage” plans are referral plans offered by ConnectiCare to commercial and Medicare Advantage members. Members of passage plans are required to get primary care provider (PCP) referrals to see any specialist in the ConnectiCare network. For assistance on referrals and general information, contact practicerelations@uchc.edu.

 

When do doctors need to submit a referral?

When a patient needs specialist care, a referral must be submitted before the patient goes to see that specialist. One referral is required for office visits for each different specialty. However, a referral isn’t needed for each visit to the same specialist.

For example:

  1. If the patient needs to see a dermatologist and a cardiologist, a separate referral must be entered for each specialist.
  2. If the patient’s dermatologist refers the patient to a surgeon, the patient will need another PCP referral for the surgeon.
  3. If the patient needs to see a dermatologist six times, only one referral is needed. Referrals should be submitted with start and end dates that allow the patient enough time to see the dermatologist six times.

Leadership in Diversity

High school research apprentices attend a Health Care Opportunity Programs symposium in July.

High school research apprentices attend a Health Care Opportunity Programs symposium in July.


This spring, U.S. News & World Report named UConn School of Medicine among the 10 medical schools nationwide with the most African American students, a validation of the School’s efforts to grow the diversity of its student body.

The School’s African American student population for 2018–2019 was 11.8%, well above the national average for medical schools. The national average, which was 6% in 1980, is now 7.1%.

“The lack of African Americans and other underrepresented minorities choosing to enter the fields of medicine and research is a critical and longstanding national issue,” says Dr. Bruce T. Liang, dean of UConn’s medical school. “We look forward to further helping curb this national issue and building a stronger, more diverse pipeline of future health care professionals through our medical educational mission and training initiatives.”

Research has shown that racial and ethnic diversity in medical education improves the learning and cross-cultural competencies of all doctors. And minority medical students are more likely to work in underserved communities and, therefore, positively influence access to care.

UConn School of Medicine has worked for decades to increase diversity, with much success. With this year’s incoming class, the medical school’s underrepresented-population enrollment is expected to reach a height of nearly 23%. For more than a decade, UConn’s medical school has maintained its overall percentage of African American students and has doubled the number of black males enrolled.

Having among the highest number of African American students “is very gratifying,” says Dr. Marja M. Hurley, founding director and associate dean for the Health Career Opportunity Programs at UConn Health, sponsored by the Aetna Health Professions Partnership Initiative. For nearly two decades, these programs have aimed to attract more young people from across Connecticut, of all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, to medicine and science.

Of the nearly 900 youth from the state’s elementary schools, high schools, and colleges who have participated in the programs since 1996, more than 500 have gone on to enter medical, dental, or other health profession schools. Among the School of Medicine Class of 2019, 66% of the African American graduating students participated in one or more of the programs.

“We are very proud of the successes in growing the diversity of our student body, and also building a greater pipeline for a more diverse future health care workforce,” says Hurley.

Liang added: “This is very good recognition for the UConn School of Medicine and the excellent work of our medical school’s Student Affairs team and Dr. Marja Hurley.”

UConn Med Students First to Learn With New Handheld Ultrasound

handheld ultrasound tool

Photo courtesy of Butterfly Network Inc


Students at the UConn School of Medicine are the first in the nation to use Butterfly iQ, a new handheld, full-body ultrasound system that plugs into an iPhone and is powered by a microchip, as part of their curriculum.

Guilford, Connecticut-based Butterfly Network Inc. created the first-of-its kind device, which at $2,000 is much more affordable than cart-based portable ultrasound machines that can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Dr. Meghan Herbst, School of Medicine associate professor and ultrasound director in UConn’s Department of Emergency Medicine, is spearheading use of the device in medical education at UConn. She envisions the Butterfly iQ becoming as essential as a physician’s stethoscope.

“I will have an ultrasound unit on me, kind of like my stethoscope but a different tool — I think a better tool — to really look inside patients’ bodies,” she says. “Not only can you do everything that the cart-based machine can do, but the cart-based machine has a different probe for each frequency of sound.”

Butterfly iQ eliminates the need for multiple probes, with the silicon chip system able to create linear, curved, or phased ultrasound beams.

Students who tested out the device were impressed by the ease of use and image quality.

“It’s totally intuitive,” says third-year medical student Sam Southgate.“It’s like a modern tech device rather than a piece of medical equipment.”

Third-year medical student Zach Bovin agrees: “The first thing I noticed was that the [image] quality was as if I had the big ultrasound machine next to me.”

First- and second-year medical students are using the devices in their anatomy lessons, Herbst says, and fourth-year students recently used them during a four-hour ultrasound session as part of their preparation to transition to residency.

Butterfly Network aims to democratize health care, marketing director Guru Sundar says, whether that means providing devices to physicians in underserved areas or to students who might not have previously had the opportunity for such hands-on ultrasound experience.

“I hope to incorporate ultrasound into the first- and second-year Delivery of Clinical Care course, where they can ‘see’ the heart after learning how to listen to it, or ‘see’ the liver and thyroid after learning how to examine these organs,” Herbst says. “I also hope to have some of the fourth-year students independently scan while on certain clerkships, such as emergency medicine and critical care.”

The units are also being used in the Emergency Medicine Residency Program.

Those at UConn and in the health care industry at large believe the technology could revolutionize health care. According to Forbes, the company has raised $250 million in investments, including from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“For us at UConn to be right at that cutting-edge, right at the future, is very exciting,” Southgate says.

School of Medicine Reaccredited

Through a vote at an October 2018 meeting, the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME) accredited the University of Connecticut School of Medicine medical education program for another eight-year term.

The School of Medicine was deemed satisfactory in 92 of the 93 elements and compliant with all 12 standards of the accreditation criteria by the LCME, which is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as the authority for the accreditation of medical education programs.

“We are pleased with this positive outcome and would like to thank the various faculty and staff members who were so instrumental in this remarkable achievement,” says Dr. Bruce T. Liang, dean of the School of Medicine, who directed the effort to prepare for the accreditation of the medical education program.

“Since a new curriculum was recently introduced, there are several elements that will continue to be monitored, but we are committed to working diligently toward strengthening the program even further.”

Forming Alliances to Build a Better Care Model

In her first year as dean of the UConn School of Dental Medicine, Dr. Sharon Gordon seeks to apply the concept of interprofessional learning to shape the future of health care.

Cloe Poisson, Copyright © 2019. Hartford Courant. Used with permission.
Cloe Poisson, Copyright © 2019. Hartford Courant. Used with permission.


As medicine moves toward an integrated approach to care, UConn’s new dental dean sees a greater role for dental medicine in the delivery of that care, and a strong foundation already in place to make that happen.

Dr. Sharon Gordon, who arrived from the East Carolina School of Dental Medicine last summer, says it’s part of what drew her to UConn: more broadly, the rich history of partnership between the medical and dental schools, but notably the basic sciences curriculum they share in the first two years, focusing on interprofessional training.

“We’re perfectly poised to move to the next steps, which would be providing clinical care together,” she says. “The idea is students moving into the clinics together, learning how to take care of patients together, so when they graduate they will be prepared for interprofessional practice.”

The evidence shows that more comprehensive care of the patient gives better health outcomes overall.

Health care financing already is trending toward a more holistic view of the patient and greater emphasis on outcomes; a next step is recognition of the connection between oral health and
overall health, Gordon says.

“Thinking about dentistry and where it is on the spectrum of reimbursement, if we don’t embrace that, we’re going to be left behind,” Gordon says. “But more importantly, the evidence shows that more comprehensive care of the patient gives better health outcomes overall.”

To help UConn Health get there, Gordon wants to continue building on the concept of students working in group-practice clusters in the clinic. A program fittingly known as CONNcept (Connecticut Comprehensive Education and Practice Team), established under the leadership of Gordon’s predecessor, Dr. R. Lamont “Monty” MacNeil, aims to simulate a true practice setting. As part of this, Gordon’s vision also includes incorporating nursing students, students from Tunxis Community College’s dental hygienist program, and, eventually, expanded-function dental assistants. Collectively, these disciplines can train together and, ultimately, practice together, improving patient outcomes through this new model of care.

Tracking Opioid Overdoses in Real Time to Save Lives

psychedelic image od opioid


A pilot program led by the Connecticut Poison Control Center and UConn Health’s Emergency Medicine department has been tracking opioid overdoses in Hartford in real time to improve surveillance of the opioid epidemic. More than 1,000 people died from opioid overdoses in Connecticut in 2017, including 80 in Hartford.

The project, launched May 1, has emergency medical service (EMS) personnel in Hartford report overdose cases to the state’s Poison Control Center, part of UConn’s Emergency Medicine department, immediately after the incident. The Center’s poison information specialists ask the emergency responders a series of brief questions and record the data.

The test program is a collaboration with American Medical Response (AMR) ambulances, which provide coverage to two-thirds of Hartford’s communities, and nearby Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center’s emergency department.

“This new program is increasing our awareness of what is happening on the ground,” says Peter Canning, UConn John Dempsey Hospital’s EMS coordinator.

UConn Health hopes the program establishes an effective early warning system to alert public health and safety officials and community stakeholders of any sudden spike in overdoses or the potential threat of a potent batch of opioid drugs released in certain neighborhoods.

Since the program began in May, the AMR ambulance crews in Hartford reported 211 overdose cases to the Connecticut Poison Control Center. In 147 of the reported cases, emergency crews had to administer the opioid antidote naloxone to revive the overdose victims.

Early data attributes 98 percent of the overdoses where the substance was known to heroin and fentanyl, and 2 percent to other opioids such as oxycodone and methadone. The majority of victims — 77 percent — were male, 51 percent of whom were between the ages of 35 and 49. In addition, 67 percent of the overdoses occurred in public areas such as city parks, roadways, sidewalks, and restrooms. EMS also reported cases of victims who thought they bought cocaine, but instead overdosed on powdered heroin.

This fall the pilot program may expand to include Aetna Ambulance Service in the south end of Hartford.​

“This new program is an important step forward and a great example of multi-agency collaboration,” says Dr. Suzanne Doyon, Connecticut Poison Control Center medical director. “Rapid real-time identification of potentially troubled areas of the state is important to public health. Using the connectivity and round-the-clock expertise of the Poison Control Center is both novel and forward-thinking.

“We hope this becomes the model for reporting statewide. The ultimate goal here is to reduce overdoses and save lives.”

Connecticut Student Researchers Shine

CT researcher

Affrin Ahmed of Bloomfield, a UConn second-year international graduate student majoring in applied genomics, is seen working on her Partnership for Innovation and Education (PIE) summer research project.

Ahmed was among the local college students who presented their innovative projects to distinguished guests including state legislators at UConn Health Aug. 1 during Innovation Fellows Research Day, an event that showcased PIE, a newly launched statewide consortium.

The inaugural class of PIE summer program fellows comprises 79 students from UConn, Trinity College, University of St. Joseph, Central Connecticut State University, Southern Connecticut State University, University of Hartford, and Tunxis Community College.


Got Breast Milk?

Lactation consultant Marisa Merlo helps maternity patient Bekkilyn Toone breastfeed her newborn son in UConn Health's labor and delivery unit.

Lactation consultant Marisa Merlo helps maternity patient breastfeed her newborn son in UConn Health’s labor and delivery unit.


UConn John Dempsey Hospital is the first hospital in Connecticut, and only location in the Greater Hartford area, to serve as a milk depot for breast milk donations for newborns in need.

“Our new milk depot is going to benefit our tiniest patients in Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICUs) across Connecticut and the Northeast, including our very own, the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center NICU here at UConn Health,” says Marisa Merlo, lactation consultant for UConn Health’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

UConn Health’s milk depot, which opened in August, is the fifth in Connecticut to join Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast. The nonprofit community milk bank, accredited by the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, distributes donated, pasteurized human milk to babies in fragile health throughout the Northeast.

Women interested in donating their breast milk can contact Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast (milkbankne.org) directly to apply for eligibility and screening. Once women become eligible to donate, their breast milk donations are accepted by Merlo at UConn Health and safeguarded in the freezer of its new milk depot room. Merlo and her staff safely ship the frozen milk to Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast for pasteurization and distribution to their network of NICUs.

Not all mothers of newborns can produce a sufficient milk supply. Mothers with premature newborns especially can experience difficulty producing or pumping enough breast milk while their baby is in the NICU. Donor milk is a more beneficial substitute for fragile newborns than formula.

“This new milk depot at UConn Health will make it more accessible, easier, and stress-free for women to donate their breast milk to help other women and their babies,” says Natalee Martin, associate director of development for UConn Health. She chose to donate her breast milk for three months after her daughter turned one to help boost the health of NICU babies.

“I know just how critically important donated breast milk is,” says Martin, who used to work for the March of Dimes. “The fact that the donated milk is staying in the Northeast and Connecticut to help other moms is amazing.”

The new milk depot at UConn Health was founded and made possible with initial donations by Merlo, Martin, obstetrician/gynecologist Dr. Christopher Morosky, and Carrie Ferrindino, nurse manager of Maternal Child Health, for the purchase of a milk freezer.

“The milk depot at UConn John Dempsey Hospital is a wonderful opportunity to provide to our community,” says Ferrindino. “Our goal at UConn Health is to do everything in our power to promote and support healthy moms and healthy babies.”

UConn Dental Alumna Gives Back

Dr. Carolina Giraldo


UConn School of Dental Medicine alumna Dr. Carolina Giraldo ’95 has always persevered.

Born in Bogotá, Colombia, and raised in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Giraldo and her older sister took care of themselves and their younger brother from an early age while their parents worked three jobs. Giraldo knew she’d have to work hard to be successful, juggling work and study to put herself through college and then dental school.

Now she’s paying it forward. Giraldo, who opened her own dental practice soon after earning her doctorate, recently made a $1 million planned gift to help students like herself. Giraldo established the Dr. Carolina Giraldo Scholarship in 2017 so dental students from underrepresented groups might have an easier time becoming dentists than she did.

“I want the minority population to grow in the field,” Giraldo says. “I want a bigger presence of women, of minorities, to get into the field and make a difference.”

Dr. Sarita Arteaga, the dental school’s associate dean for students, says scholarships like Giraldo’s help students with “the little things,” not just tuition.

“It also helps them to know that someone is investing in them,” she says. “They say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe somebody was in this position and not only wants to give back to the school, but wants to do the same thing for me.’”

To support the Dr. Carolina Giraldo Scholarship Fund, visit s.uconn.edu/giraldo.