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Vitae vignettes: Scott Summers and Andrea Wallace

U of U Health presented these videos highlighting the work of two prominent researchers last month at Vitae, an annual hallmark event, highlighting research excellence across University of Utah’s health sciences departments. This year’s event at the S.J. Quinney of Law featured six live speakers giving 10-minute TED Talk-style presentations. [Videos of these talks can be found on the U of U Health YouTube channel.] The vignettes  below focused on the College of Health’s Scott Summers, who is discovering new treatments for diabetes, and the College of Nursing‘s Andrea Wallace, who explores ways to better address patients’ social needs outside the clinic. Banner photo by Sophia Friesen.

Scott Summers: A lifelong quest

Scott Summers has been looking for a cure for his father’s diabetes since age 14. Now, the professor and chair in the Department of Nutrition & Integrative Physiology is on the verge of a groundbreaking new diabetes treatment. The treatment hinges on a biological molecule called ceramide; high levels of ceramide in the blood are associated with a greatly increased risk of diabetes and heart disease.

Summers’ lab found that in mice, tweaking the structure of ceramides protects against diabetes, heart disease, kidney failure and many other metabolism-associated chronic conditions—creating a “super mouse,” Summers said. Now, his lab has developed a drug that changes ceramides in the same way. The drug will likely go into clinical trials within the year.

As co-director of the Diabetes and Metabolism Research Center, Summers has helped build a community of researchers working together to address metabolic diseases.

“Whether somebody is working on diabetes or heart disease or cancer or kidney disease, we’ve been able to come together bringing common technologies and research models,” Summers said. “I don’t think I could have made the kind of progress we’ve made anywhere else in the world.”

Andrea Wallace: Beyond clinic walls

Recovery isn’t confined to the clinic. People’s social needs—from healthy food and stable housing to the ability to get transport to pharmacies—have an immense impact on their health following a medical visit. But figuring out what a patient’s needs are, much less acting on them, is far from straightforward for patients and providers alike.

Andrea Wallace, a professor and associate dean in the College of Nursing, is using her expertise in health services research to measure patients’ social needs. Wallace works in close partnership with community organizations, such as the social services hotline Utah 211, to find ways to direct people towards resources they need to get well. Since 2017, her team has screened about 50,000 patients in U of U Health systems and referred about 6,000 patients to Utah 211.

“It’s personally gratifying to receive back stories from patients who have connected to services and been able to get their needs met,” Wallace said. “Even though there are certainly challenges in this work and we have continuing work to do, getting those stories really do feed our team’s work as we continue to move forward.”