The VF Fellowship Program was established in June 2012 to encourage medical professionals to pursue careers in patient care and research linked to vasculitis. The Fellowship provides the opportunity for one- or two- year tracks designed to support the training of physician scientists who wish to gain clinical expertise in vasculitis and who may also wish to pursue an investigational career in this field. The fellowships are conducted through Vasculitis Centers where there has been a track record of training individuals in the specialty of vasculitis.
Rennie Rhee, MD, University of Pennsylvania
2014-2016 Vasculitis Foundation Vasculitis Fellow
Introducing Dr. Rennie Rhee
Dr. Rhee’s strong personal qualities, enthusiasm to understand vasculitis, and sophisticated and interesting research agenda make her an excellent choice for this fellowship. I’m privileged to mentor this intelligent and motivated researcher and am confident that she has the skills, desire, and opportunity to develop into a highly successful clinical investigator in vasculitis. She came to the University of Pennsylvania for her Rheumatology fellowship with the specific goal of pursuing training in clinical research. Now with the VF fellowship, she can continue to develop as a researcher and pursue goal of becoming an expert clinician in vasculitis. She is among the best Rheumatology fellows I have had the pleasure of working with. I am certain Dr. Rhee will have a productive career as a patient-oriented researcher in the field of vasculitis.
~Dr. Peter Merkel, Chief of the Division of Rheumatology and Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology, the University of Pennsylvania
“What drives me is knowing that I can make a positive impact on someone’s life.”
“I was always a bit of a science nerd so becoming a physician seemed like a natural application of that,” admits Rennie Rhee, MD, recipient of the 2014 Vasculitis Foundation Fellowship. She initially thought she’d become a primary care physician because she was interested in forming long-term relationships with patients. “As I learned more about rheumatology and the complexity of rheumatic diseases, I realized this was the area that fit me best,” she says.
The specialty enables her to pursue a robust research agenda and continue to work with patients. “The most rewarding part of my work is seeing patients get better—I think any physician would say the same,” she notes. “Whether I’m at the bedside or doing research, what drives me is knowing that I can make a positive impact on someone’s life.”
Rhee focused on vasculitis in part because there is so much still to be learned. “There are so many unanswered questions, which is enticing as a researcher,” she says.
Now an investigator at the University of Pennsylvania, Rhee works with Dr. Peter Merkel and Dr. Antoine Sreih, among others, to understand more about vasculitis. In particular, Rhee hopes to determine whether outcomes, such as survival and development of end-stage renal disease, are improving in patients with ANCA-associated vasculitis over the past 25 years. She also is interested in the impact of early diagnosis and treatment advances on these outcomes.
“Understanding the past helps us move forward,” she explains. “We want to know if all the advances in the field of vasculitis are translating into improvements in patient-important outcomes in a real-world setting. We can also evaluate which has had a larger contribution to better outcomes: earlier diagnosis or advances in therapy. Understanding this will help identify areas in need of more research.”
The VF fellowship is a difference-maker for researchers early in their careers. “I feel incredibly honored to have received this fellowship,” Rhee says. “As a young investigator, studying a rare disease such as vasculitis is challenging particularly in this financial climate. Yet I feel there is such a great need to better understand this disease. Obtaining this fellowship will provide me the needed training and mentoring to continue contributing to this field and ultimately benefit the many patients diagnosed with vasculitis. I also have the privilege to work with world-renown experts in the field who can train me in both clinical management and research investigation.”
Elizabeth Brant, MD, University of North Carolina
2013-2015 Vasculitis Foundation Vasculitis Fellow
Introducing Dr. Elizabeth Brant
Dr. Elizabeth Brant’s academic career started as a recipient of the prestigious Morehead Scholarship at the University of North Carolina as a student of music. Her career path later switched to medicine with the explicit goal of improving the care of patients with vasculitis. She excelled in her training as a student, resident and fellow in nephrology, gaining several awards. In addition to her rich background in both art and science, she brings to the Vasculitis Foundation fellowship unparalleled enthusiasm, energy, dedication, and warmth. Her research project focuses on understanding the causes and mechanisms of a common and dangerous complication of vasculitis, namely abnormal venous blot clots (“venous thromboembolic events” or VTE). Although the increased risk of VTE among patients with vasculitis is well recognized, the causes and mechanisms are still poorly understood. Dr Brant’s work will explore the clinical risk factors of VTE, and test the hypothesis that ANCA antibodies themselves initiate a molecular and cellular cascade that promotes the formation of venous blood clots.
~ Patrick Nachman, MD, professor of medicine, UNC Kidney Center, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
For new VF Fellow Elizabeth Brant, the things that are most challenging about her work also are the ones that can be the most rewarding.
“What’s most important to me is helping people at any given stage of treatment or care,” she explains. “Of course, it’s incredibly gratifying to treat people and see them recover, but not everyone is so fortunate. Sometimes I’m helping them come to terms with kidney failure and impending dialysis or transplantation. Other times I’m helping them with end-of-life decisions. It can all be rewarding when you feel that you may have helped someone be less afraid about major life transitions or helped them or their families attain some degree of peace about the inevitable end of life.”
Still, it is challenging to talk to patients about a disease even the doctors know so little about. Brant says her goal is to “arm myself with as much information as possible and express it in a way that I would want to hear it.”
The VF Fellowship allows Brant to focus her research on venous thromboembolism (VTE), a condition that studies show is common in ANCA vasculitis and tends to occur around the times of active disease. About 10 percent of ANCA patients develop VTE; about half of all patients (not just those with vasculitis) with VTE develop pulmonary embolism, a life-threatening complication. Her research will test a hypothesis about how VTE forms in patients with ANCA vasculitis.
“What I think is particularly important is the growing understanding of the mechanism of these diseases,” she explains. “As is so often the case, figuring out the basic mechanisms will help us understand other diseases. And, of course, the more we know, the more avenues of treatment we can pursue. Hopefully this research will help us identify those at greatest risk of this complication and guide us toward intervention.”
Note: Dr. Brant completed her fellowship on June 30, 2015 and joined the Division of Nephrology/Hypertension, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire.