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Grateful for Every Breath

In 1990, Howell Graham was the first patient at UNC Hospitals with cystic fibrosis to receive a double lung transplant. Over the years he has tried several times, but couldn’t quite find the right words to say ‘thank you’ for the gift he received. Now, he says he’s finally ready.

In 1990, Howell Graham was 28 years old. His Cystic Fibrosis had progressed to the point that walking across the room was a taxing chore. He didn't think he could go on living that way.

His physician, Thomas Egan, MD, MSc, professor of surgery, had come to UNC in 1989 to begin the human lung transplant program. At that time, a new technique for performing the procedure had been developed. Egan knew Graham was a good candidate.

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Joint Biomedical Engineering program combines strengths of NC State, UNC-Chapel Hill programs


The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University already were ahead of the curve in 2003. With technology playing a greater role in medicine every day, it only made sense to combine Carolina's top-notch medical program with State's world-class engineering school to let their graduate students explore the growing field of biomedical engineering (BME).

The joint graduate program proved so successful that in 2015, a joint undergraduate degree program was created.

Dr. Nancy Allbritton, chair of the Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering , said the programs offer students many more choices at an earlier point in their academic careers. Students who might have followed a traditional path in medicine are able to explore new technologies in health care, while students who might have focused on engineering can explore how innovative technology is changing the face of medical care.

The partnership began when NC State's College of Engineering explored developing a biomedical engineering program. A small, fledgling program existed at UNC-Chapel Hill at that point, and the campuses thought it made the most sense to combine efforts.

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The first sights babies see sculpt the brain’s visual circuitry

When a newborn baby opens her eyes, she does not see well at all. It can take months for her world to come into focus.

Now scientists have found more clues about what happens in the brains of baby mammals as they try to make visual sense of the world. The study in mice, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, is part of an ongoing project in the lab of Spencer Smith, assistant professor of cell biology and physiology at the UNC School of Medicine, to map the functions of the brain areas that play crucial roles in vision. Proper function of these brain areas is likely critical for vision restoration.

“There’s this remarkable biological operation that plays out during development,” Smith says. “Early on, there are genetic programs and chemical pathways that position cells in the brain and help wire up a ‘rough draft’ of the circuitry. Later, after birth, this circuitry is actively sculpted by visual experience: simply looking around our world helps developing brains wire up the most sophisticated visual processing circuitry the world has ever known.

“Even the best supercomputers and our latest algorithms still can’t compete with the visual processing abilities of humans and animals. We want to know how neural circuitry does this.”

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Helping solve a health care shortage

Less than a year after she earned her degree from Carolina, Misty Cox is already putting her skills to work — and helping make North Carolinians healthier in the process. Cox, a 2016 UNC-Chapel Hill graduate, is one of 13 fellows participating in MedServe, a program focused on helping solve the problem of health care shortages across North Carolina.

“The need for family medicine doctors in underserved communities is really great,” Cox said. “They’re kind of a first line of defense, and a lot of times have knowledge that can help individuals to keep them out of emergency rooms.”

Since the MedServe program launched in the fall of 2016, its 13 fellows have helped care for nearly 6,000 patients in North Carolina, said MedServe co-founder and UNC School of Medicine student Patrick O’Shea. He compares MedServe’s mission to that of Teach for America, but with a health care focus. Instead of putting teachers in classrooms, the program connects recent college graduates with health care clinics in rural or underserved communities to assist often-overwhelmed medical providers to help patients get the care they need.

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Michelle Maclay, Communications Director