Four UCSF faculty receive top honors in academic medicine

By Wallace Ravven

Four of the highest honors being presented this year by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) recognize UCSF faculty leaders.

The honorees received their awards Saturday, November 6, at the AAMC annual meeting in Boston.  The UCSF recipients are:

* Haile Debas, MD, dean emeritus of the School of Medicine, honored with the Abraham Flexner Award for Distinguished Service to Medical Education.

* Michael Drake, MD, UCSF professor of ophthalmology and vice president for health affairs for the University of California, recognized with the Herbert W. Nickens, MD,  Award for outstanding contributions to promote justice in medical education and health care.

* Sharad Jain, MD, associate professor of clinical medicine and assistant chief of medical services at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center, who received the association’s annual Humanism in Medicine Award.

* Cynthia Kenyon, PhD, the Herbert Boyer Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics, who earned the Award for Distinguished Research in the Biomedical Sciences.

AAMC represents all accredited U.S. and Canadian medical schools, nearly 400 teaching hospitals and health systems and related institutions.

HAILE DEBAS, MD—The AAMC recognized Debas for extraordinary contributions to medical schools and to the medical education community as a whole. While serving as dean of the UCSF medical school from 1993 to 2003, Debas implemented educational reorganization that refocused the school’s teaching of medical students. He oversaw the development of a new curriculum and helped establish the Academy of Medical Educators—now renamed in his honor—to support and reward teaching. The academy model has been adopted by other medical schools around the country.  To further advance the school’s priorities, Debas asked that all gifts from the annual fundraising drive be used exclusively for direct support of the schools’ educational programs. He also increased support for the school’s research training efforts to educate more physician scientists. Debas served as UCSF chancellor in 1997 and 1998.

Debas now focuses on global health issues. He is executive director of UCSF Global Health Sciences, which applies UCSF expertise in basic, clinical, social and policy sciences to the challenge of reducing the burden of disease in the world’s most vulnerable populations. The program works with partners in other countries to coordinate global health research and teaching efforts.

A native of Eritrea, he earned a medical degree from McGill University in 1963 and completed his residency at the University of British Columbia. He served as chair of surgery at UCSF for six years before becoming dean of the medical school. He is widely recognized for contributions to the fields of physiology, biochemistry and gastrointestinal research.

MICHAEL DRAKE, MD—The AAMC honored Drake for his career-long commitment to enhance diversity in the medical profession. His efforts to recruit minority students and to improve health care for minority and disadvantaged communities have benefited the UCSF School of Medicine, the UC system and the State of California.

In the early 1970s, as a medical student, Drake participated in a community initiative to educate African-American public school students about sickle cell anemia, hypertension and diabetes. In the 1980s, as a UCSF faculty member, he brought about a more focused review to the admissions of disadvantaged and minority candidates. He developed and chaired for 10 years a committee on recruitment and retention, during a decade in which student diversity increased in the medical school.

In 1996 Drake co-authored a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine, “The Role of Black and Hispanic Physicians in Providing Health Care for Underserved Populations.” The study established that physicians from underserved populations tend to serve people from those populations.

As UC vice president for health affairs, Drake led the effort to create a dual degree program to train physicians specifically to meet health care needs of California’s underserved populations. The program was launched in July.  He was appointed to the Institute of Medicine committee that produced the 2004 report “In the Nation’s Compelling Interest: Ensuring Diversity in the Health Care Workforce.”

SHARAD JAIN, MD—Jain was honored for his contributions as a mentor for medical students and a practitioner of patient-centered care. He was recognized for the clinical care and compassion he shows veterans at the hospital and for his “tireless volunteer work for the homeless.” One of his student nominators for the award said that Jain epitomizes many of the reasons students go into medicine—“the quality of human relationship, the selfless giving and the desire to help and educate.”

Jain is a regular volunteer at the UCSF Homeless Clinic and a mentor to medical students who work there. He teaches in three related courses: Introduction to Poverty Medicine, Homeless Medicine, and Social Activism in Medicine. He also serves as co-director of the School of Medicine’s new area of concentration in community health and social advocacy, designed to support student community service projects.

Born in India and raised in Berkeley, Jain earned his medical degree from UCSF, where he also completed his residency. He worked as a staff physician at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center and was an instructor in Stanford’s department of medicine before returning to UCSF in 1997.

CYNTHIA KENYON, PHD—Kenyon was recognized for the caliber of her laboratory research.  Her 1993 discovery that a single-gene mutation could double the lifespan of the small nematode worm C. elegans sparked an intensive study of the molecular biology of aging. The gene encodes a receptor for insulin and a hormone called insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), demonstrating that aging is regulated hormonally. Kenyon’s findings have now led to the discovery that insulin/IGF-1 signaling controls aging in other organisms including mammals, and suggest a related hormone pathway controls human lifespan as well.

Kenyon’s research has caused a major shift in the scientific view of the aging process.  Before her finding, aging studies relied on comparisons between old cells and young cells.  Now researchers can apply genetics to the study of aging, understanding that the process is under genetic control and that it is regulated by a conserved endocrine system that also controls the onset of age-related disease.

These findings may have important disease-prevention implications since the animals with the long-lived mutant genes have been found to be resistant to several age-related diseases.  The research may create a new therapeutic strategy based on the ability to postpone the onset of age-related disease by slowing the aging process itself. Director of UCSF’s Hillblom Center for the Biology of Aging, Kenyon is also co-founder of Elixir Pharmaceuticals, a company that seeks to replicate the genetic results from her research and others to develop drugs that slow aging and reduce the diseases associated with aging.

Kenyon earned her PhD in 1981 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She completed her post-doctoral work at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England.  She joined the faculty at UCSF in 1986.