Over the past five years, Dr. Selwyn Vickers has seen the UAB medical enterprise build on a powerful growth spurt that began more than a decade ago. It’s a continued evolution that has further lifted UAB’s reputation and thrust it onto the national stage for research, patient care and education.
In this time frame, UAB has established new institutes and research centers, while also deepening its leadership bench by adding top-notch experts in fields ranging from biomedical engineering to precision medicine.
Surgeries have increased nearly 20 percent in five years. Outpatient clinic visits have jumped more than 30 percent to nearly 1.5 million last year. The overall reach of UAB’s medical enterprise, meanwhile, has expanded with new programs and through its network of new regional campuses.
Significantly, funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for research at the School of Medicine has surged more than $100 million in the period, a rate of growth that places UAB among the nation’s elite academic medical centers.
The total for 2018, nearly $233 million, underscores UAB’s role as a leader in “bench-to-bedside” medical research. The figure placed UAB at No. 8 in the most recent rankings of NIH funding for all public U.S. academic medical centers.
Vickers, dean of the School of Medicine and senior vice president of Medicine, doesn’t expect the momentum — built on a foundation laid by a predecessor, Dr. Robert R. Rich, and a vision of growth initiated by UAB President Dr. Ray Watts — to falter.
With aligned leadership and a focused energy from the top, Vickers believes the pieces are in place for the UAB medical enterprise to sustain its growth trajectory.
“What excites me the most is our continued upside and impact we can have on Alabama, the deep South and America. We have made tremendous strides and yet I think we have a unique upside because we haven’t yet reached our peak,” he said.
“We have realistic expectations, but those expectations make us even more special to the country, more significant to the Deep South and the state of Alabama, and probably one of the most attractive academic medical centers in America.”
The expectations include aggressive goals. Through a strategic plan called AMC21, UAB Medicine targets a national Top 10 ranking in quality, a Top 10 percent score in patient satisfaction and a Top 20 spot in NIH funding for both public and private academic medical centers. UAB is positioning itself as a destination for top talent.
“I want us to be one of the places where people aspire to be because they know it is a place where they can do great things,” Vickers said.
To fulfill its ambitions of long-standing national prominence, UAB cannot afford to relax its efforts, he added.
“It’s like walking up a downward escalator. If you stand still, you go backwards. We realize that we have to continually grow. We know there is going to be a leveling off. We just don’t believe we are there yet,” he said.
Today, Vickers is known as a world-class surgeon and a groundbreaking researcher in the fields of pancreatic cancer and health disparities. The journey, however, has been a long climb. To get there, he benefited from inspiring role models, a commitment to learning and a natural perseverance.
He was born in Demopolis, a small town in the heart of Alabama’s rural Black Belt, a mostly agricultural district named for its rich soil and dogged by economic challenges.
His parents – John and Clara Vickers – saw education as the surest route to a better life. Both made sacrifices to earn master’s degrees.
John moved the family to Tuscaloosa, where he took a job as a school principal. In 1974, he became one of the first African Americans to earn a doctorate from the University of Alabama. Later, he accepted a faculty position at Alabama A&M in Huntsville, where he served as a faculty leader and dean for more than 30 years.
Young Selwyn benefited from improved educational opportunities in the university communities. When he was a 15-year-old high school student in Huntsville, a pivotal event occurred. He attended his uncle’s graduation from the University of Cincinnati School of Medicine. Leroy Vickers was a family medicine physician, and Selwyn shadowed him for a week.
One day, a patient arrived with symptoms that included shortness of breath. The young doctor detected a very distinct heart murmur and knew instantly what must be done. He engaged a team of cardiologists and cardiac surgeons.
“My uncle was a family practitioner and he picked up on a very significant heart murmur that this person had been struggling with,” Vickers recalled. “For this person, that saved his life. It changed the world for him. For me, then, I realized that was something I would love to do.”
Though just in the 10th grade, he set his sights on medical school – and ultimately selected one of the best, Johns Hopkins. As a freshman undergraduate at the Baltimore university, he found the course material difficult and frequently scored low marks. But he never gave up and eventually began excelling.
Once in the elite Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, he interacted with key mentors, including Dr. Levi Watkins, an African American surgeon from Montgomery, and Dr. John Ruffin, whose work led to the creation of the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities.
Another mentor was Dr. John Cameron, a surgeon and educator who propelled Johns Hopkins’ surgical program to a place among the nation’s best.
Cameron had a focus on the treatment of pancreatic cancer, an almost always fatal diagnosis even when surgery was possible. Vickers realized that a deeper understanding of the disease was necessary to improve outcomes – a decision that set him on the research path.
As part of this work in Minnesota, Vickers had a role in the development of a promising drug called Minnelide that targets pancreatic cancer. Minnelide is now in Phase II clinical trials and preliminary data has shown activity against cancer cells in animals.
“The early data in humans also seems to show a significant impact, but it still has to go through a more rigorous set of trials. It seems to have some benefits for not only pancreatic cancer but also broad impact against other tumors as well,” he said.
“We’re excited about its potential as just an oncologic agent but certainly most excited about what it might mean in the setting of pancreatic cancer.”
Return to UAB
In August 2013, Vickers was named dean of the School of Medicine at UAB, following a stint heading the surgery department at the University of Minnesota Medical School. The move represented a homecoming for Vickers, who had served on the UAB faculty from 1994 until 2006.
Today, after five years in charge of the School of Medicine, Vickers is looking to the future of the broader UAB medical enterprise and its relentless march toward a place among the nation’s premier health care and research institutions.
Building on UAB’s growth in NIH research funding is one of the keys to realizing that ambition. This funding drives discovery, sparks ideas and frequently results in new forms of treatment for patients, Vickers said. It is also a powerful economic engine for the city and Alabama.
“When each investigator gets a grant, it is like a $1 million startup company. When you have $500 million in research grants, it means you have 500 small companies that would never be in Alabama if it weren’t for UAB and the federal government. It is a constellation of companies providing jobs at a high level and attracting new talent,” he added.
In recent years, UAB’s School of Medicine has been able to recruit more than 20 new leaders. They include Dr. Mitch Cohen, a national leader in pediatric medicine; Dr. Jay Zhang, who built a biomedical engineering program from scratch; Dr. Smita Bhatia, a researcher focusing on cancer outcomes: and Dr. Matt Might, a pioneer in genomic medicine.
This high-level talent recruitment, working in concert with a retention program that has kept more than 100 School of Medicine faculty members in Birmingham, is essential if UAB is going to realize its ambitions, according to Vickers.
“We can’t get people to come from Boston, Baltimore, Ann Arbor and San Francisco if we don’t have great clinical, research and education programs,” he said. “UAB is a place where we have talent that is attracted from around the country to allow us to be who we want to be and, hopefully, be a crown jewel for Alabama.”
Vickers believes UAB’s culture will play a major role in its future accomplishments.
“We’re very collaborative. We don’t have the legacy of silos and a long-standing history that sometimes breeds difficult-to-work-with egos. We don’t have a lot of that because we know we are always punching above our weight class and climbing the hill,” he said. “With that said, we’re willing to work together to achieve our most lofty goals.”
This story originally appeared on the University of Alabama System’s website.