Researchers honored with 2022 Health Care Heroes awards

ATLANTA – The Atlanta Business Chronicle has selected two Emory researchers as winners of its 2022 Health Care Heroes awards.

Roxana Chicas, PhD, RN, BSN, assistant professor in the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing at Emory won the Health Care Hero award in the Rising Star category; and Nadine Rouphael, MD, professor at Emory University School of Medicine and executive director of the Hope Clinic, the clinical research arm of the Emory Vaccine Center, won as Health Care Hero in the Innovator/Researcher category.

Roxana Chicas: Rising Star Category Winner/Honoree

Chicas came to the United States from El Salvador at age four, crossing the Rio Grande on her mother’s shoulders. Undocumented, she later received temporary protective status that allowed her to work at a pediatrician’s office. At the time, she aspired to become a medical assistant, however one of the doctors challenged her to go further and become a nurse.

At age 28, Chicas changed her career goal and enrolled in what is now Perimeter College at Georgia State University. She went on to complete her bachelor’s degree at Emory and, two weeks after graduation, she became a doctoral student under the direction of Emory School of Nursing Dean Linda McCauley. 

Inspired by her own story, Chicas uses nursing science to increase research inclusiveness through engagement and empowerment of farmworker communities. Her community-based participatory research with farmworkers deals with gaining greater understanding of climate-sensitive health risks and the physiological mechanisms underlying heat-related illness (HRI) and acute kidney injury (AKI).

Chicas conducted the first field-based intervention study of methods to reduce risk of HRI using real-time biomonitoring equipment among farmworkers. She also launched the first field-based study to test hydration interventions among farmworkers to protect them from AKI. Chicas’ emerging research enterprise carefully balances biomedical research while testing simple, realistic solutions for protecting farmworkers, contributing more effectively to public health policy.

Her work is shaping the future of climate and occupational health science. Her methodologies are unique and effective thanks to direct partnership with farmworkers and their families. The chance to give back to her community in tangible ways has been the driving force behind her passion for environmental science and her excellence in nursing research.

A recognized collaborator, Chicas’ work fits well with the School of Nursing’s Center for Data Science and its faculty members such as Vicki Hertzberg, PhD, an internationally recognized expert on “big data” and its impact on health care. Together, they are developing a patch that can recognize early signs of kidney injury and heat-related illness.

It turns out that Chicas and Hertzberg also paired well physiologically, as Chicas recently donated a kidney to Hertzberg, who needed a kidney transplant this spring.

Nadine Rouphael: Innovator-Researcher Winner/Honoree

An infectious diseases physician and researcher, Rouphael has spent much of her time over the last two years organizing and overseeing COVID-19 prevention and therapeutic clinical trials at Emory. Weeks after the pandemic began, Rouphael led Emory’s team in the nation’s first COVID-19 vaccine study at the Hope Clinic. She was also Emory’s principal investigator (PI) for the Phase III study of that vaccine (Moderna), which was later approved by the FDA and is now used globally.

During the initial months of the pandemic, Rouphael and her team worked tirelessly to test various therapeutic agents against COVID-19; Emory enrolled the most patients in the world for a National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ (NIAID) study series which led to FDA approval for two COVID-19 treatments — antiviral drug, remdesivir, and subsequently a repurposed anti-inflammatory drug, baricitinib.

Rouphael was also the Emory PI for a study of Eli Lilly’s monoclonal antibodies, ­and her team managed one of the first three clinical sites to give a monoclonal antibody to a COVID-19 patient.

As national chair for an observational study called IMPACC, Rouphael and her team have enrolled more than 1,200 patients hospitalized with SARS-CoV-2 to track the immune responses driving disease outcomes which could inform new and better treatments. 

She co-leads the global Sanofi/GSK vaccine clinical trials that are testing the efficacy of a protein-based approach against SARS-CoV-2 and is Emory’s PI for a study of the second-generation Gritstone vaccine, which aims to build broader immunity beyond the viral spike protein that is the basis for current vaccines. Her team also enrolled the highest number of volunteers for a study evaluating the antibody response in pregnant women and infants after COVID-19 vaccines.

Rouphael is currently investigating what a sustainable vaccine strategy could look like in the future; she was recently named co-chair of a nationwide NIAID-funded study that explores a question in the forefront of many minds: Instead of chasing variants – and having to take episodic boosters – could we create a COVID-19 vaccine that targets a variety of variants?

Even before the pandemic, Rouphael had an outstanding record of scholarship, mentorship and leadership in building Emory’s nationally recognized translational vaccinology and therapeutic clinical trials program at the Hope Clinic. As the PI for the Emory Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Unit, she oversees the clinical trial process, translating basic research discoveries into clinical advances.

Congratulations to these two Atlanta Business Chronicle’s 2022 Health Care Heroes!

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