Georgia CTSA MSCR Trainee Receives Artemis Award

Congratulations to Jessica Shantha, MD, Assistant Professor, Section of Vitreoretinal Surgery and Diseases and Section of Uveitis and Vasculitis, Emory Eye Center, and Georgia Clinical & Translational Science Alliance (Georgia CTSA) Master in Science in Clinical Research (MSCR) trainee who is the recipient of the American Academy of Ophthalmology’s 2020 Artemis Award. This award recognizes a young ophthalmologist Academy member who has demonstrated caring and service of an exemplary degree to his/ her patients.

In addition to being an exemplary scholar in the Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women’s Health (BIRCWH) program at Emory University, Dr. Shantha received an NIH K23 Mentored Patient-Oriented Research Career Development Award for her work related to eye disease in Ebola survivors since the 2014-2016 outbreak in West Africa.

One of Dr. Shantha’s mentors, Steven Yeh, MD, M. Louise Simpson Associate Professor of Ophthalmology, and Faculty Fellow, Emory Global Health Institute, remarks, “Dr. Shantha has conducted an immense amount of work in global settings to understand critical questions that drive the care for Ebola survivors, who remain a vulnerable population. She is an exceptional colleague and mentee who combines a rare blend of intellectual curiosity, strong sense of purpose, and tremendous work ethic to understand global healthcare disparities, as well as emerging infectious diseases. The Artemis Award recognizes her unique care initiatives and rewards not only her work accomplished, but also her deep commitment to patients who may not have access to resources for vision health, which is integral for human health.”

While addressing clinical and research gaps within uveitis and retinal disease in international health care settings, Dr. Shantha’s involvement has expanded to include COVID-19 and says, “Dr. Yeh and I have been conducting initial research to look for signs of COVID in the eye. We are both interested in infectious diseases, the health impacts, and implications of viruses and emerging infectious diseases that potentially could cause blindness.”

“Although we have been researching emerging infectious diseases for several years, now the whole world has completely felt the impact of COVID everywhere, in every aspect of the world. The concepts we have been exploring, global health security and disease, are now being witnessed by everyone. We observed the impact of Ebola over the past few years as we’ve worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, and Sierra Leone and saw the devastating impact of disease on those patients’ lives. Now everyone is in-tune to this concept of global health security and it doesn’t stop with COVID,” observes Shantha. “Our COVID experience highlights that we have to be more proactive and not reactive as a society. Being able to study these rare diseases that have the potential to become a pandemic is vital. The surveillance system of infectious diseases around the world is important.”

Drs. Shantha and Yeh met Dr. Ian Crozier, an infectious disease physician who has been deployed by the World Health Organization to West Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo in prior Ebola outbreaks. While caring for Ebola patients in Sierra Leone, Dr. Crozier was infected by virus and subsequently treated for critical illness at Emory University Hospital in 2014. After surviving Ebola, Crozier later developed uveitis, a sight-threatening condition due to severe inflammation. Being on a rotation, Dr. Shantha was able to provide care for Dr. Crozier and learn more about disease pathogenesis. During Crozier’s treatment, Shantha and Yeh discovered Crozier had Ebola virus in his eye. Although Crozier had developed acute Ebola virus three months earlier and his body had cleared the virus, it remained in his eye. Dr. Yeh explains, “Because of this key discovery, we recognized there were thousands of Ebola survivors in West Africa who were at risk for vision impairment and blindness as well.”

Through their research, Drs. Shantha and Yeh found between 25-33% of Ebola survivors will develop eye inflammation, and nearly 40% of these patients could have severe vision impairment or blindness. Shantha says, “My interest in global health grew after being a part of Dr. Crozier’s treatment team and the collaboration between ophthalmology and infectious disease. I applied for a uveitis ocular inflammatory disease fellowship as I wondered, ‘What if there are many Ebola survivors in Africa who are developing this disease and are going blind?’ Uveitis is such a hard disease to understand and treat, so Dr. Yeh and I wanted to use our experience to help. We are motivated by our goal of preventing people from going blind and being an advocate for patients who may not have an advocate. Our initial research began with just one patient, and now we still have a presence in West Africa and want to build capacity there from a research and ophthalmology perspective.”

The team has continued to work with the NIH to understand this disease progression in patients in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and through a partnership with the World Health Organization, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). “In the DRC outbreak, one-third of the survivors are infants and children. This has significant public health impact,” notes Dr. Yeh. “Throughout these efforts, Dr. Shantha has been a leader in patient service, education, and investigation, and the Georgia CTSA has provided immense support for methodology, study rigor, and partnerships with outstanding mentors in infectious disease including Dr. Henry Blumberg, Dr. Igho Ofotokun, Dr. Rob Breiman, and many others. Dr. Shantha has been an absolute joy to work with and mentor – she is reflective of the extremely high caliber of all of the current trainees and graduates of the Georgia CTSA MSCR program.”

As a current trainee in the MSCR program, Dr. Shantha comments, “The Georgia CTSA MSCR program is helping me fully explore how medicine and science intersect. With the COVID pandemic, I feel like our security is less certain and has taken away some of our humanity. That’s what we felt in Africa. We experienced the curfews, people being stigmatized, and witnessed patients who were developing ocular inflammation and potentially going blind. These concepts can be translatable here with what’s going on due to COVID, which is in our backyard now.”

“Not only the MSCR program but also the BIRCWH program has completely changed my ability to obtain competitive funding and to utilize a network around Emory. It is a lifelong network of many talented people that I can reach out to for continued collaborations. The MSCR program gives you the tools and the skills necessary to take your research to the next level.”

Dr. Shantha adds, “All of these things are a part of all of us. For me, I just really wanted to impact the lives of people who can’t advocate for themselves. It’s a story of how one patient can change your life, and that’s exactly what happened to me. I feel really lucky to have worked with Dr. Yeh and to work with everyone at Emory. It’s given me more purpose to the work that we do every day.”

 

The Emory Master of Science in Clinical Research (MSCR) degree program, in the Laney Graduate School at Emory University, provides innovative didactic and mentored research training to those interested in pursuing a career in clinical and/or translational research. The MSCR degree is designed for predoctoral, postdoctoral trainees, and junior faculty from Emory, Morehouse School of Medicine, Georgia Tech, and UGA.

The Georgia CTSA is a statewide partnership between Emory, MSM, Georgia Tech, and UGA and is one of over 60 in a national consortium striving to improve the way biomedical research is conducted across the country. The consortium, funded through the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) and the National Institutes of Health's Clinical and Translational Science Awards, shares a common vision to translate laboratory discoveries into treatments for patients, engage communities in clinical research efforts, and train the next generation of clinical investigators. For more information, visit GeorgiaCTSA.org.

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