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Leading with Grit and Collaboration to Advance Community Health through Integration of Research and Medicine

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UH Research & Education Update | November 2023

Scientific curiosity, a deep-seated desire to improve the lives of all patients, and persistent determination are at the heart of the impressive and inspiring career of Grace McComsey, MD, FIDSA

Her brilliant vision for connecting medical research to improved community health outcomes is rooted in her extensive experience as an infectious disease clinician and a world-renowned HIV researcher. Her research has transformed global understanding of cardiovascular and metabolic complications of HIV disease. She has served as principal investigator on more than 15 HIV-related grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Grace McComsey, MDGrace McComsey, MD, FIDSA

During the Coronavirus Pandemic, she encountered many unknowns, mirroring what she experienced as a young researcher studying HIV early in her career. Her leadership of COVID-19 related clinical trials of vaccines, antivirals, and anti-inflammatories at the University Hospitals Clinical Research Center was instrumental for the prevention and treatment of the disease, and the relief of long-term complications.

Post pandemic, she is breaking new ground as a Hub Principal Investigator for the NIH’s Researching COVID to Enhance Recovery (RECOVER) Initiative, a national program to understand, treat and prevent long-term Covid. Case Western Reserve University, at the center of which is University Hospitals, with a collaboration from Metrohealth Medical Center, is the only Ohio site in the RECOVER Initiative’s implementation phase. Juggling HIV and long COVID research, she strives to bring patients hope.

A Lifelong Dedication to Science and Optimizing Patient Care

Born in Lebanon, a math, and physics major at Saint Joseph University in Beirut, Dr. McComsey first considered engineering before attending medical school. She was encouraged by her parents, who wanted a physician in the family and personally motivated when she received the ninth highest score in the country on her entrance exam.

Her experience as a medical student and Red Cross volunteer in the late 80s in midst of the Civil War in Lebanon (1975 -1990) heightened her sensitivity to human suffering and made it even more important and personal that she become a physician, she says.

She came to the United States after graduating from medical school in 1989, not knowing any English, but eager to specialize in both adult and pediatric infectious diseases. She was initially drawn to the field in medical school because of its focus on the entire patient, rather than on a specific organ or organ system.

She overcame her initial language barrier during a one-year internal medicine internship at Seton Hall/ St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in N.J. Thereafter, she moved to Cleveland to complete a combined internal medicine and pediatrics residency at the MetroHealth System (1991-1994). She subsequently custom developed her own Adult and Pediatric Infectious Diseases Fellowship at University Hospitals/Case Western Reserve University, because the combined program she envisioned did not exist then. After fellowship, in 1998, she started her journey as a faculty at University Hospitals.

A Pioneer at Heart

Throughout her career, Dr. McComsey has routinely paved her way, to sidestep skeptics, to examine little understood patient care issues, and to launch new research.

Her early clinical and scientific experiences sharpened her perspective on the link between research and improved medical care, and the importance of mentorship. It was as a young clinician at University Hospitals that she first tackled mitochondrial toxicity as the underlying factor in a devastating antiretroviral drug side effect, lipodystrophy. She observed the abnormal distribution of fat in many adult and pediatric HIV patients, who experienced stigma and discomfort some physicians ignored.

Intrigued, she developed small grant proposals to secure funding for the expensive lab and tissue analysis she wanted to conduct, on her own time, after hours, as a clinician without a mentor, a senior research advisor, or even a lab. She sought to collaborate with other mitochondrial experts around the country, cold calling experts, and eventually teamed up with a researcher at Baylor University, with the help of a small industry grant.

They worked together to understand mitochondrial dysfunction among HIV patients. Dr. McComsey provided the clinical work and gathered the necessary patient blood samples. The Baylor researcher offered her lab and expertise. It was challenging work, but the collaboration formed the basis for a scientific paper, which was awarded “Best of AIDS” in 2003. A year later, Dr. McComsey received her first NIH Research Project Grant Program (R01) for a grant she wrote without the input of a senior advisor, an accomplishment she considers one of the most gratifying in her career.  Within few months, she secured a second R01 grant which help establish her research trajectory.

A Personal Commitment to Mentorship

The lack of guidance she experienced early in her career now drives Dr. McComsey to prioritize the mentorship of students, fellows, and young faculty, at various stages of their professional development, to advise and help them navigate the challenges of structuring and funding good research.

She calls mentorship the cornerstone for research, stating, that without mentorship, “You’re setting someone up for failure.” She encourages young physician-scientists to focus on research they are passionate about, advising them to develop clear objectives and aims, work hard, and overcome rejection and criticism with continued persistence. She notes that being a little gutsy and having thick or tough skin is helpful, too.

Those in search of mentorship must “bring something to the table” including drive and an idea, she says. “You have to show that you put time into thinking about (your idea) and that you are willing to do a lot of the work.”

Building Future Research Through Collaboration and Community Engagement

Today, Dr. McComsey leads exciting growth and innovation as vice president of research and associate chief scientific officer for the University Hospitals (UH) Health System, and director and principal investigator of the Case Western Reserve University Clinical & Translational Science Collaborative of Northern Ohio (CTSC).

In August, the research collaborative received a seven-year, $56.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, and 4 million in additional training grants funds, to expand the scope of research in CTSC labs and related clinical settings, to improve the health of patients in Northern Ohio and beyond.

Under Dr. McComsey’s vision, the CTSC focuses on health equity and ensuring that all patient populations are represented in clinical trials, and have access to new findings and medical advances, including rural, Hispanic, African American, LGTBQ, elderly and disabled populations.

These efforts encompass all six CTSC members, which now include the University of Toledo and Northeast Ohio Medical University, in addition to Cleveland Clinic, The MetroHealth System, University Hospitals, and the VA Northeast Ohio Healthcare System.

Leading the CTSC, Dr. McComsey intends to fuel greater collaboration across academic and community research organizations, to accelerate the rate at which scientific discoveries are disseminated and implemented as impactful, life-enhancing treatments. She notes, “It’s good to do research, but what does it mean if you are not applying it clinically?”

To foster collaboration across its academic partners and other community organizations, under Dr. McComsey’s leadership, the CTSC only funds projects co-led by at least two partners, to maximize their potential community and patient benefit, irrespective of any existing health disparities. Research conducted by a single organization, without an integral or embedded community-based organization or research partner is not funded.

Moving forward, community engagement will be key for researchers to understand clinical needs, and for patients to realize the importance of being equitably represented in medical research.

“It’s about taking innovation and making a difference,” in the communities and among the patients that need it most, something that inspires Dr. McComsey every day.

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