Two U-M doctors recognized as outstanding women in science by AGA

The American Gastroenterological Association's Foundation for Digestive Health and Nutrition will recognize on Sunday, May 18 two faculty members in the University of Michigan Health System's Division of Gastroenterology as the 2008 Outstanding AGA Women in Science at Digestive Disease Week® in San Diego.

For their exemplary contributions to digestive disease science,  Anna S. Lok, M.D., AGAF, FRCP , professor of internal medicine, and Juanita L. Merchant, M.D., Ph.D., professor of internal medicine and of molecular and integrative physiology, will be honored through the endowment of the new Sara Jordan Research Scholar Award. Sara Jordan was the AGA's first woman president.

"The AGA Foundation is pleased to honor the 2008 Outstanding AGA Women in Science who have made outstanding contributions to the field of digestive disease science through clinical education, scholarship, research and patient care," said Sidney Cohen, M.D., AGAF, chairman of the Foundation for Digestive Health and Nutrition. "We are proud to have such a distinguished group of women serving their communities and in leadership roles nationally and internationally."

Anna S. Lok
Lok, a hepatologist and world-renowned expert on hepatitis B, continues to work to determine the most cost-effective way to prevent recurrent hepatitis B after liver transplantation. She also is evaluating new antiviral therapies for hepatitis B, as well as leading several studies on the role of hepatitis B virus genotypes and molecular variants in the pathogenesis of liver disease and response to antiviral therapy.

Additionally, Lok is actively involved in hepatitis C research. She is the lead of the Michigan center for the HALT-C trial, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. The aim of this trial is to determine if long-term interferon therapy can prevent the progression of hepatic fibrosis, hepatic decompensation, and hepatocellular carcinoma in patients with chronic hepatitis C who fail to respond to previous antiviral therapy. Lok also is a co-investigator in an NIH-sponsored study on adult-to-adult living donor liver transplantation.

Juanita L. Merchant
Merchant's research is focused on the molecular mechanisms underlying normal and neoplastic epithelial cell growth in the luminal gastrointestinal tract. Her recent studies involve the use of animal and cell culture models to dissect the pathways through which bacterial colonization leads to ulcer development and subsequently cancer.

Ongoing projects in Merchant's laboratory have revealed that outer membrane proteins stimulate the gastrin and interleukin-8 promoters, and may be a general mechanism by which bacterial proteins activate mammalian cell signaling pathways and gene expression. In particular, Merchant, a member of the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center, has found that bacterial overgrowth and specific cytokines mimic the pathology observed with Helicobacter pylori infection in mice, suggesting that chronic atrophic gastritis is not a host response specific to this organism, but is the general response of the stomach to bacterial colonization.

The Sara Jordan Research Scholar Award will be given once every three years to a qualified individual pursuing research related to digestive diseases. The award will help the recipients establish independent, productive research careers and will be part of the Foundation's Research Scholar Awards portfolio.

The AGA Research Scholar Awards address the critical problem of a lack of funding for entry-level researchers in gastroenterology. At a time of unparalleled scientific and clinical opportunity, the field of gastroenterology faces a significant decline in the number of gastroenterologists entering academic research careers.

Although the NIH supports a significant amount of gastroenterology research, it rarely funds young investigators working independently without a research track record. Additionally, NIH gastroenterology research funding is proportionately much smaller than for diseases with less similar health impact (such as HIV/AIDS or breast cancer).

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Written by: Krista Hopson

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