In medical school, the very complex diseases in rheumatology fascinated Rennie Rhee, MD, MS. In particular, vasculitis was a mystery she was interested in solving.
Following her residency, she received a two-year fellowship from the Vasculitis Foundation.
“Treating vasculitis is very much like solving a puzzle since you get a little piece of information here and another there before putting it altogether to make a diagnosis and formulate a treatment plan,” says Dr. Rhee, who is an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine in Philadelphia.
“There is no single test that gives you an answer and I found that very interesting personally and professionally.”
“The Vasculitis Foundation Fellowship allowed me to we work with Dr. Peter Merkel, one of the world’s experts in the field,” she says.
“At the Penn Vasculitis Program, I saw a large number of patients, and learned more about diagnosis and management of these diseases through working with Dr. Merkel and Dr. Antoine Sreih.”
Focus on Research
Her other focus during the fellowship was research. She was interested in investigating trends in outcomes over time in patients with ANCA-associated vasculitis (AAV) and kidney disease.
She obtained access to a large database administered by the Glomerular Disease Collaboration Network at the University of North Carolina. Using records of patients entered between 1985 and 2005, she assessed changes in survival and kidney disease over that period of time.
“We found that compared to patients diagnosed in earlier time periods such as 1985, patients diagnosed more recently are actually living longer and are less likely to develop end-stage renal disease (ESRD),” says Dr. Rhee. “We looked at a fairly similar group of people with severe disease and found their outcomes are improving over time. It seems the best explanation for this benefit is earlier diagnosis.”
The Vasculitis Foundation fellowship has already led to additional success. She was recently awarded a prestigious National Institutes of Health K Award, which is a mentored early career development award.
This award requires evidence that the grantee can complete research at high levels. Dr. Rhee said that the support from the Vasculitis Foundation was critical in that respect.
“I am appreciative of the Vasculitis Foundation and its donors for supporting people like me who are new and not well known in the field of vasculitis but have a real desire to engage and be part of this field of medicine,” Dr. Rhee says.
“Without the fellowship, I don’t think I’d be able to do what I am doing today: seeing patients and doing research in vasculitis. The fellowship was critical to my ability to advance my career as a researcher and a clinician.”