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A Promising Outlook

A Promising Outlook

Surveying the landscape here, there’s much to celebrate.

Recently, I gave the annual state of johns hopkins Medicine speech. I always enjoy this event, because it gives me the opportunity to celebrate the work of so many of our faculty members and employees.

I’d like to share a few of the highlights from the speech. Without a doubt, the place to begin is with Gregg Semenza, the C. Michael Armstrong Professor of Medicine at the school of medicine. In October, he was awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (see p. 8).

The Nobel jury recognized him for his groundbreaking discovery of a protein called hypoxia-inducible factor 1, or HIF-1, which helps cells cope with low oxygen levels, a key factor in health conditions such as coronary artery disease, chronic lung disease and cancer. Gregg has led the field in uncovering how cells adapt to changing oxygen levels, and has found that HIF-1 controls genes involved in response to low oxygen levels.

He richly deserves this award. At the same time, this is a recognition of the curiosity, creativity and excellence that everyone at Johns Hopkins brings to their work to illuminate the truth and to share the benefits of knowledge with humanity.

In October, we also celebrated the opening of the Johns Hopkins National Proton Center at Sibley. The opening marks the culmination of more than seven years of hard work by many people. We can now offer our patients another cutting-edge option in cancer care (see p. 22). The center, which is directed by Christina Tsien, will offer both adult and pediatric patients extremely precise cancer treatment. It is one of only a few centers in the world with a dedicated pediatric team, which will work in collaboration with experts at Children’s National Hospital.

Another issue I touched on is the opioid epidemic. Millions of Americans are struggling with opioid addiction, and in recent years, Baltimore has seen a sharp increase in opioid overdose deaths. The problem is not that we lack effective tools to attack this epidemic. The issue is that we are not using these tools systematically. Working together, a group of researchers and clinicians at the Johns Hopkins schools of medicine, public health and nursing, as well as the Johns Hopkins Health System, have developed an ambitious plan to help Baltimore gain control of its opioid problem. The project, which is being led by Michael Fingerhood, an associate professor of medicine and public health, has the potential to become be a national model.

One area that we continue to excel in is research. Over the past year, our faculty members have produced an impressive range of science across many disciplines. I highlighted several projects during my speech; I’ll mention one particularly unusual but intriguing line of inquiry here.

Neuroscientist Gul Dölen studies the particular brain networks that enable social behavior. These networks are disrupted in many diseases, including autism, depression and schizophrenia. To better understand the deep evolutionary roots of social behavior, she examined how octopuses respond to the drug Ecstasy, which in humans tends to increase sociability. Gul studied a species of octopus that is especially solitary. She found that even in this species, the compound, which floods neurons with the serotonin, appeared to trigger a significant increase in social behavior in the animals. The results indicate, she notes, that evolutionarily, social behavior is extremely old, and that serotonin has been a linchpin of this system for a very long time: Octopuses diverged from humans 500 million years ago.

There is so much more, but I can’t include everything in one column. I wish you a wonderful 2020, and I look forward to connecting again soon.
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