Dr. Louise McCullough receives the award for mentoring.
Dr. Louise McCullough receives the award for mentoring.

As the American Heart Association’s International Stroke Conference 2017 wrapped up its first ever conference in Houston, McGovern faculty took home more than just a host of memories.

Not only did members of the Department of Neurology faculty at McGovern Medical School walk away with two of the 10 international awards presented at the conference – including the prestigious Thomas Willis Award – they left an indelible mark, contributing a combined 45 oral presentations, posters or moderated posters.

“McGovern Medical School has a strong history of being a pioneer in stroke research, clinical care and teaching,” said Barbara J. Stoll, M.D., dean and H. Wayne Hightower Distinguished Professor in the Medical Sciences. “The international awards and range of presentations at the conference by faculty and fellows is outstanding proof that the Department of Neurology is continuing this proud tradition of excellence.”

Dr. Jaroslaw Aronowski receives the Willis Award.
Dr. Jaroslaw Aronowski receives the Willis Award.

The 2017 Thomas Willis Award for significant translational contributions to clinical stroke research was awarded to Jaroslaw Aronowski, Ph.D., professor, vice-chair and the Roy M. and Phyllis Gough Huffington Chair in Neurology. The Willis Award recognizes an American Heart Association (AHA) Stroke Council Fellow who has “actively engaged in and has made significant contributions to basic science research (animal/cell models) in stroke.” It is bestowed once a year to one senior scientist for sustained long-term achievements and advancing innovative concepts in the basic science of stroke.

The Inaugural Stroke Research Mentoring Award was presented to Louise D. McCullough, M.D., Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Neurology, Roy M. and Phyllis Gough Huffington Distinguished Chair of Neurology and chief of neurology, Memorial Herman – Texas Medical Center. She is also co-director of Memorial Hermann Mischer Neuroscience Institute at TMC. The award recognizes outstanding achievements in mentoring future generations of researchers in the field of cerebrovascular disease.

In its description of the award, the AHA/American Stroke Association (ASA) noted that “McCullough is a well-respected educator who is passionate about mentoring students and nurturing junior scientists.”

McCullough’s research includes seminal studies identifying sex differences in cell death pathways during stroke. The Cerebrovascular Research Group, which has five principal investigators including McCullough, Jun Li, Ph.D.; Fudong Liu, M.D., M.S.N.S.; Venugopal Reddy Venna, Ph.D.; and Akihiko Urayama, Ph.D., contributed 15 presentations and posters at the conference. The group studies the effects of aging and inflammation on stroke recovery. McCullough’s clinical research interests include identification of unique risk factors that contribute to the poor recovery seen after stroke in elderly women, especially social factors such as isolation and depression.

McCullough said UTHealth’s continued high profile at the International Stroke Conference reflects the cutting edge research and clinical trials developed at McGovern Medical School and Memorial Hermann-TMC.

This further emphasizes the importance of the new UTHealth Institute for Stroke and Cerebrovascular Disease founded earlier this year. Directed by Sean I. Savitz, M.D., the institute was created to bring together the research innovation of UTHealth’s six schools to exert an even greater national and global impact on stroke treatment and prevention. Faculty from UTHealth School of Nursing were among presenters at the conference.

The research presented at the conference ranged from discovery science to a leading-edge clinical trial on the advancement of telemedicine on the nation’s first mobile stroke ambulance – the UTHealth Mobile Stroke Unit.

Tzu-Ching “Teddy” Wu, M.D., assistant professor of neurology and director of the telemedicine program at McGovern Medical School, was first author of “Telemedicine Can Replace the Neurologist on a Mobile Stroke Unit,” which was presented at the conference and published concurrently in the journal Stroke. Wu reported that the results of the randomized study showed that a remote telemedicine vascular neurologist and the onboard neurologist agreed 88 percent of the time on whether to administer the clot-busting drug tissue plasminogen activator (tPA). That agreement is comparable to two neurologists assessing the same patient in the emergency center.

“Ours is the first study to evaluate whether a telemedicine vascular neurologist can make accurate decisions on tPA administration in the prehospital setting,” the authors wrote. “Our findings are important because telemedicine is being used by other mobile stroke units as the primary means of assessment and decision-making.”

A study led by neurophysiology fellow Kristin A. Brown, M.D., on a screening tool that could predict when a feeding tube needs to be placed in an acute ischemic stroke patient was presented at the conference.

Dysphagia – a difficulty in swallowing – is a common post-stroke complication but there were no standard tools for assessing whether a patient should receive a feeding tube. Brown and her co-authors designed an aspiration-based tool that could be used in patients who failed the bedside swallow test. The model was calculated using a combination of fiberoptic endoscopic evaluation of swallowing and modified barium swallow studies. Results showed it was helpful in predicting the need for placement.

Susan Alderman, Ph.D., R.N., assistant professor in acute and continuing care at UTHealth School of Nursing, presented research showing that information processing speed was impaired even in patients who suffered a mild or moderate stroke. This impairment should be considered in the planning of health care for all stroke patients.

Oral presentations were also made by Sung-Ha Hong, Ph.D.; Meaghan Roy-O’Reilly, M.D., Ph.D. candidate; Abdullah A. Mamun, Ph.D.; Javiera Bravo-Alegria, Ph.D.; Lin Lui, Ph.D.; and Bing Yang, M.D.

Fellows whose posters were accepted for the conference included Harris Kamal, M.D.; Quynh Pham, M.D.; and Alicia Zha, M.D., who is a T32 recipient of a training grant from the National Institutes of Health.

“Our vascular neurology fellowship program is the largest in the country with seven stroke fellows this year and eight next year,” said Amrou Sarraj, M.D., assistant professor and director of the Vascular Neurology Stroke Fellowship Program. “Our program has a long history of graduating fellows who take the lead in delivering excellent patient care, as well as building and leading stroke programs to advance patient care and research.”

The International Stroke Conference of the AHA/ASA is the largest meeting in the world dedicated to the science and treatment of cerebrovascular disease, drawing more than 4,500 stroke experts from around the globe.