Current ICRE Spotlight

When it came time for Anthony Lewis to make, as all medical students have to, the “big anxiety-provoking decision” about what specialty they will go into, he chose general surgery. He liked that it gave him the ability to take care of sick patients and deal with complex problems, and that it came with technical and cognitive challenges on both these fronts. His interest in a more academic rather than community-based residency program grew out of the love he has had, ever since the time he was an undergraduate research assistant in his university’s physics department, for the research environment. "It’s always been very intellectually stimulating to address new problems, or even address old problems in a new way," he said.

That inbuilt curiosity not only brought him to Pitt, but is almost certainly one of the things that drew him to enroll in the Master of Science in Clinical Research Program here in the Institute for Clinical Research Education. Dr. Lewis, a General Surgery resident currently in the final year of a three-year research fellowship that falls between two multi-year blocks of clinical rotations, also cited the fact that, though he has lots of experience in basic science research, "to be able to truly bring things out of the lab in a translational sense, you have to be able to speak the language of the people who are going to be carrying out the next step."

Originally from Lubbock, Texas, Dr. Lewis graduated summa cum laude from Texas Tech University with a degree in biochemistry and a minor in microbiology. He then stayed in “the Lone Star State” for medical school, which he completed at the University of Texas Medical Branch (Galveston), graduating magna cum laude in 2011. After coming to Pitt for his residency, Dr. Lewis underwent a Basic/Translational Research Training Fellowship from the Surgical Infection Society in 2014, and began a T32 fellowship in 2015. He is currently finishing up the sixth of nine years of postdoctoral training (comprising both residency and a fellowship), and plans to defend his thesis in May 2017.

Dr. Lewis says that the research he pursued through medical school “started out pretty basic science-y,” and then took on “a more translational bent” after he got to Pitt. Like his mentor, Matthew Rosengart, MD, MPH, a professor of surgery and critical care medicine, Dr. Lewis seeks to be a skilled traveler in the realms of both basic science and clinical research, fluent in the languages of both worlds, and able to translate findings from the former to the latter with ease.

One impressive example of that process can be seen in a recent study that Dr. Rosengart and his team carried out into the potential for light to be used as a clinical therapy. Even though light has been of interest to researchers for the past several decades, not until recently did researchers start to take into account how complex light is. Dr. Rosengart’s group investigated whether exposure to high intensity, specific wavelength light therapy could affect the reperfusion period following surgery, during which blood is restored to an organ. This period, Dr. Lewis explained, can be "a very injurious time for the organ" because of the “inflammatory milieu” that existed during the time of blood loss. This study showed encouraging small-scale results, in particular a reduction in neutrophil influx, and the findings were published in May 2016 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Dr. Lewis was named a co-author on the manuscript—no small feat, even for a senior researcher.

Of course, considering the emphasis on translation, the group then looked to apply these results to human trials, which they did with a recently completed pilot trial at UPMC Presbyterian in patients with appendicitis, currently being written up into a forthcoming manuscript. Altogether, Dr. Lewis has 8 peer-reviewed publications to his name (three manuscripts that he first-authored appeared between June and August 2016 in Surgical Infections and Critical Care Medicine), along with four book chapters (all of which Dr. Lewis first-authored).

Dr. Lewis’ decision to enroll in the MS program may have puzzled some, like his friends in clinical surgery residencies, considering all the other research he has done and continues to do. For him, though, just as learning to operate is a skill, “learning how to do research well is a skill, too.” His decision to enter the clinical trials track in the program, which may be seen as somewhat less suited to his work compared to the translational track, grew out of a desire to get more involved in clinically-oriented projects, and to push himself out of his comfort zone a bit.

Dr. Lewis is currently carrying out investigations in the area of sepsis, an infection of the blood that affects anywhere from 750,000 to a million people in the US every year, proving fatal for around twenty percent of those. "It’s a huge problem and we don't really have any great solutions to it," he said. What he finds particularly interesting is the way that sepsis "spans all disciplines"; he spoke of friends in oncology research and trauma research who are looking for the next great treatment in those fields. Regardless of whether you may see a benefit from such oncology or trauma research, however, the "common defining thing [with the people in] these groups is that they can all get sick with infections that can all develop sepsis."

Within this realm, Dr. Lewis and his colleagues are using biotelemetry technology with mouse models to make advancements in our understanding of the physiological markers that indicate that one has become sick with sepsis, and to more precisely measure how long it takes to become sick, as well as the ideal time to deliver treatment. "The whole idea is," as with so much of the work he does, "to bring what we’re doing in the lab a little bit closer to what we’re doing in our patients."

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