Empowered By Heersink Gifts, UAB and Canadian University Join Forces

Jul 06, 2022 at 11:36 am by steve

Mary and Dr. Marnix Heersink , Alan Tita, MD, Rubin Pillay, MD, Pam Benoit PhD, John Kelton MD

If there is a textbook example of a combination being more than the sum of its parts, here is a prime case in point. The allied efforts of UAB Heersink Medical School and McMaster University's Michael G. DeGroot School of Medicine are set to turn the two research centers into next level powerhouses of innovation and expertise in global health.

"We're seeing so much enthusiasm for working with our counterparts at McMaster. They are a great partner for us," UAB Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Pam Benoit, PhD, said. "Both universities are well known for health sciences, education and research, and both have strong records of innovation. There are a lot of commonalities that can be leveraged to benefit both, as well as resources that are complementary.

"Through campus visits and discussions, we're getting to know each other, and identifying areas that offer good opportunities for teamwork. We hope to set up student and faculty exchanges so we can learn from each other. One of the key steps will be matching the research interests of our investigators and connecting them with their McMaster counterparts so they can start exploring areas where their work can benefit from an exchange of expertise.

"The $95 million gift from Dr. Heersink to UAB will be transformational. It is the largest donation ever to a university in Alabama. This will allow us to advance in areas where we already had presences, such as biomedical innovation and global health initiatives, and take them to the next level. We are so grateful for his generosity and for introducing us to the wonderful partnering opportunities with McMaster."

Born in the Netherlands and educated in Canada, Marnix E. Heersink, MD and his wife Mary moved to south Alabama where he set up an ophthalmology practice.

"All six of our children went into health professions, and five of them studied at UAB," Heersink said. "It's a great privilege to be in a position to help other people. Medicine is my vocation and I'm still a practicing eye surgeon, but it was through my entrepreneurial work that I built the resources that give me the opportunity to help others.

"GIVE is an acronym that guides my thoughts in charitable donations. G is for gratitude. I've been fortunate. I is for investment and inspiration. When I give I also consider it an investment in other people, and I hope the example also leads others to give when they can. V is for vision and values. I look for opportunities that line up with what I hope the gift will achieve. E is for excellence. I want what I give to have the potential to create something excellent."

In addition to the Marnix E. Heersink Institute of Biomedical Innovation, the Heersink donation also supports expansion of global health efforts through the Mary Heersink Institute for Global Health. As an international food safety advocate, Mary took up the fight against food borne illnesses shortly after their seven-year-old son spent more than six weeks in intensive care during an e coli outbreak. She has testified before Congress and served on boards fighting food borne illnesses in Canada, the Netherlands and India.

"The institute and funding will allow us to ramp up our global health initiatives," said Alan Tita, MD, PhD who serves as the Associate Dean for Global and Women's Health at UAB. "McMaster also has a strong global health background and they are working toward offering a PhD program in global health. We hope to build on their experience. One of our initial ideas for partnering is to put together a joint symposium on global health in an international setting within the next few years."

As the hard lessons of the pandemic have shown, health problems anywhere can affect health everywhere.

"Once vaccines became available, delays from infrastructure and supply lines became obvious. McMaster's global health program identified the same vaccine hesitancy problems we saw in other countries and here at home. We need to find solutions for these problems as soon as possible before we are challenged by other outbreaks," Tita said.

UAB's past initiatives have included work in Zambia, Cameroon, Uganda and other parts of west and east Africa as well as Latin America.

"With McMaster, we hope the Institute will soon be collaborating on projects in India, Thailand, Sudan and other countries," Tita said.

"Cross pollination of ideas has long been recognized as a major stimulus for creativity," said Rubin Pillay, MD, Associate Dean for Health Innovation at UAB. "With UAB and McMaster working together, we have two tier-one partners with similar strengths. Another major strength is how we're different. The partnership gives us a wider base of resources. For example, UAB's School of Engineering and bioengineering program can be helpful to McMaster in developing and testing new products.

"We also have very different patient populations. Birmingham has a higher African-America population than most cities, and McMaster is situated in an area with more people who have an Asian or India subcontinent background. Both schools have solid backgrounds in clinical testing. The difference in populations will allow us to test how a new medication performs across a broader genetic background. Testing across more diverse populations is something pharmaceutical companies and the FDA have been requesting, and we are well-positioned to fulfill that objective."

From the Canadian side of the collaboration, John Kelton, MD, who is the Executive Director of McMaster University's Initiative for Innovation, said: "McMaster and UAB are well-matched for partnering. Both are highly regarded for cutting edge research. They are about the same size, so it is a match of equals. Our strengths and resources complement each other, and both are located in cities that have evolved from industry-based to knowledge-based economies."

A friend of Dr. Heersink since medical school, Kelton was involved in some of the early discussions on funding collaboration between the two universities.

"Dr. Heersink is an eye surgeon by profession, but he has always had a talent for entrepreneurship," Kelton said. "He started out with a paper route as a child, renovated a house in medical school, and went on from there. That's probably why he wants innovators to have the opportunity to learn to be entrepreneurs. It's important to him that the economic benefits of new ideas flow to those who create them, the institutions that help develop them and the local economies where healthcare innovators and their patients live and work."

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