By Shipra Shukla
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi addressed a crowd of researchers, reporters, staff and veterans at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center (SFVAMC) on Nov. 12 in observation of Veterans Day.
The focus of her visit was on scientific research conducted there, at the core of which is the collaborative relationship between the SFVAMC and UCSF.
"Strong investments in science help us in every way," said Pelosi. "Science for the defense of our country, to grow the economy, for a healthier America and to preserve the planet."
The SFVAMC is the largest medical research program in the national VA system. Pelosi's visit marks her longstanding commitment to advocating federal funding for innovative scientific research. Currently, 250 UCSF principal investigators conduct research at the SFVAMC.
The research is administered by the nonprofit organization, Northern California Institute for Research and Education (NCIRE.) Its mission is "to improve the health and well-being of veterans and the general public by supporting a world-class biomedical research program conducted by the UCSF faculty at the San Francisco VA Medical Center."
"Speaker Pelosi has always been a strong advocate of veterans and veterans' health research, and the veterans served by the UCSF faculty at the San Francisco VA Medical Center deeply appreciate her continuing support," said NCIRE Executive Director Robert Obana. "The speaker clearly understands the nature of the SFVAMC as an academic medical center and supports the unique benefits that come from such a collaborative environment."
Speaker Pelosi was led on a tour of the VA Medical Center's Nursing Home Care Unit by WWII veteran, 95-year old John Alexander. Photo/Shipra Shukla
UCSF's partnership with the SFVAMC exemplifies how the vision in the UCSF Strategic Plan, "fostering innovation and collaboration," is being achieved. The plan states, "The future of health research is increasingly focused on bringing together teams of experts from a variety of disciplines to tackle major health issues."
Just such a team of experts gathered in an intimate session with Pelosi, one in which no media were allowed, to talk about the areas of expertise at the SFVAMC. These areas include neuroimaging, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, neurogenesis, neuroprotection and spinal cord injury.
In fact, the Center for Imaging of Neurodegenerative Diseases (CIND) at the SFVAMC has the only magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) unit in the VA system devoted exclusively to brain imaging research. The center includes a 10,000-square-foot facility where UCSF faculty, postdoctoral fellows, computer programmers, MRI technicians and other staff use MRI to study the changes in the brain which occur in normal aging and in neurodegenerative diseases.
The CIND is led by Michael Weiner, MD, UCSF professor of medicine, radiology, and psychiatry. "The overall theme of our center is to use the most advanced brain imaging technology to investigate the cause, progression and effects of neurodegenerative diseases," Weiner said. "We hope to develop effective treatments, diagnoses and methods for early detection and prevention."
Weiner revealed the latest research findings to Pelosi during a confidential session.
"We presented to Speaker Pelosi recent results concerning our studies of veterans of the first Gulf War. These include effects of stress and exposure," said Weiner. "We are very grateful to Speaker Pelosi for all her support in allowing us to perform research on the effects of military service on our veterans."
Pelosi is concerned about the health effects of war on veterans. "Investment in veterans' health care is long overdue and will go a long way toward ensuring that that our veteran's have the quality health care they have earned and that they deserve," she said in a statement released on Nov. 9. "On the battlefield, the military pledges to leave no one behind. As a nation, let it be our pledge that when they return home, we leave no veteran behind."
Pelosi supports the idea of finding innovative sources of funding, which could lead to more research collaborations between the SFVAMC and UCSF to combat deadly diseases. "We need to change our approach. Why should the VA be nickel and dimed?" asked Pelosi. "There is a $170 billion cost from cancer. We're talking about saving and improving lives."
"We have a moral responsibility to support scientific research," said Pelosi, who added that investments can lead to personalizing and customizing care in part by using electronic medical records.
Paul A. Volberding, MD, chief of the Medical Service at the SFVAMC, professor and vice chair of the UCSF Department of Medicine, and co-director at the Center for AIDS Research, echoed Pelosi's thoughts on finding new ways to operate. He cited medical record tracking as one example.
"We're looking at a new way to teach physicians within an electronic medical record system," said Volberding. "We would be developing ways to provide real time education to physicians while they take care of their patients."
The electronic medical record system is an investment in medical education that wouldn't rely on drug company money, Volberding noted.
In fact, finding new ways to support research and training and to provide better service is a result of the partnership between UCSF and SFVAMC.
"Of all the VAs in the entire country, this is the leading one with research and that's absolutely because of our relationship to UCSF," said Volberding. "Partnership with UCSF is a key way in which we can approach moving towards finding cures for diseases."
Volberding, who is widely considered one of the world's leading AIDS experts, co-founded the first AIDS-designated clinics in the early 1980s at the UCSF-affiliated San Francisco General Hospital. His work in HIV/AIDS research exemplifies the humanitarian goal of scientific research, which was the focus of Pelosi's visit.
In an emotional closing moment, before Pelosi headed on a tour of a nursing home to meet with veterans, she turned toward Voldberding and said, "Paul, I would never have thought 20 years ago when I came here that we wouldn't have a cure for AIDS by now. If we can afford to go to war for a year, we can put our dollars here."
Veterans Health Research Institute