The University of Arizona

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UA honors innovators for ideas to save lives
Wednesday, March 7, 2012
Tom Beal

A veteran pathologist and a young microbiologist were named "Innovators of the Year" at a ceremony Tuesday at the University of Arizona.

The annual awards go to a student and faculty member for translating ideas from the laboratory to the marketplace.

Ronald Weinstein, the pathologist who heads the Arizona Telemedicine Program, is often called the "father of telepathology," but his offspring are more numerous than that.

Weinstein has created multiple companies, institutes and scientific instruments, and he is currently embarked on crusades to change the way in which we teach health professionals and provide health services.

"The third leading cause of death in adults in the United States is medical error," Weinstein said. "We're working on a new curriculum to train nurses, doctors, pharmacists and other health-care professionals together."

Weinstein said patient-care deaths stem from "communications failures," a subject the Arizona Telemedicine Program knows something about. It has built a broadband communications network in Arizona that brings clinical services to hundreds of thousands of patients at 160 sites in 50 Arizona communities, including remote towns on Arizona's Indian reservations and in its state prisons.

His group's proposed cure for medical error is nothing less than the overthrow of the traditional way of educating doctors, nurses and other health professionals.

The current model, in which doctors study scientific prerequisites for medical school at a college or university for four years without ever being exposed to a health-care curriculum, was established 100 years ago.

His project wants to start earlier and has already developed a curriculum for high schoolers.

"The ultimate goal is to bring health education in at middle-school level, which will be revolutionary - and it is possible," Weinstein said.

In addition to fostering communication among health professionals, early introduction to medical education will produce citizens capable of making better health decisions. "Health literacy in the general population is critical if we are going to manage our own health," he said.

Weinstein, 73, said he draws energy from working at University of Arizona Medical Center, which he calls "a wonderful medical institution."

"I also have the blessing of being a pathologist. Many of them work into their 80s or 90s. Being a pathologist is the fountain of youth, and I am slowly approaching midcareer."

Lifesaving vaccine

Alexandra Armstrong, the Student Innovator of the Year, is just embarking on her career in microbiology, but she already has led studies that could save lives.

She was cited for her research developing a potential vaccine for a food-borne disease, Campylobacteriosis, which sickens 2.4 million people annually.

Campylobacteriosis, which is carried mainly by broiler chickens, is the second most common bacterial food-borne disease in the United States.

Working in the laboratory of Lynn Joens in the UA Department of Veterinary Science and Microbiology, Armstrong attacked the bacteria - Campylobactera jejuni - with an attenuated Salmonella Typhimurium vaccine.

She conducted two vaccination trials that showed it can reduce the number of human illnesses 30-fold, she said. "It really does look promising," Armstrong said. "We're really hoping we can get it on the market. The current intervention strategies just aren't working."

Armstrong, who will complete work for her doctorate in May, said she plans to stay on at the Joens lab, to be involved in further trials and creation of a company to license the vaccine. The lab was recently awarded an Innovation Seed Grant from the UA's Bio5 Institute to continue the research.

After that, she'd like to work in industry for a while and eventually land an academic position that will allow her to do research and continue teaching. "I absolutely love teaching," she said.

THE SPONSORS

Innovation Day at the UA is organized by the Office of University Research Parks and the Arizona Center for Innovation in partnership with the UA's senior vice president for research, UA External Relations, Office of Technology Transfer, and the McGuire Center for Entrepreneurship.