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  March 4, 2002

Pharmacy Professor's Stellar
Career Owes Start to McDonald's
By Scott Brinckerhoff

M anaging a McDonald's may be an unusual launching pad for a medical professional who treats patients in the cardiovascular unit of a major hospital. But for UConn's Michael White, the Golden Arches helped nudge him toward a brilliant career in health care.

White is an assistant professor of pharmacy practice. Each week, he makes rounds with physicians at Hartford Hospital, advising about drugs and dosages for heart patients. He also heads UConn's postgraduate cardio- vascular training program, one of 12 in the country accredited by the American College of Clinical Pharmacists.

Were it not for a tour of duty at McDonald's in Albany, N.Y., White, 29, might have gone on to a career in political science.

"I was thinking about political science as a major, but the night manager at McDonald's was a poli sci major, and he told me that jobs in that field weren't easy to find," White says.

"About the same time, I talked to an Albany College of Pharmacy guy at a college fair and he told me starting salaries for pharmacists were around $47,000, with 100 percent placement. I thought that was pretty good."

These days, White divides his time among teaching at Storrs, working with students at the hospital, and conducting research into drugs or herbs that relate to coronary care. He also shares his knowledge with the public, appearing every two months on NBC 30 newscasts, to answer viewers' questions during a segment called "Ask the Pharmacist."

A prolific writer and presenter, his curriculum vitae lists 80 published manuscripts, two book chapters and 36 presentations at national meetings. His research has been published in such prestigious journals as The Lancet and the American Journal of Cardiology. He has presented research findings at American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology meetings.

White's relentless efforts to advance science, however, have not come at the expense of teaching. In three-plus years at UConn, he has had the highest student evaluation scores in the department and was named Teacher of the Year. Students avidly seek to join him at Hartford Hospital for hands-on experience.

On this day, research student Jenny Chung takes an EKG on a recovering open heart surgery patient, evaluates it with White and tells the man, "Everything looks OK." Four other UConn pharmacy students, meanwhile, huddle in a hall with half a dozen doctors in the cardiovascular intensive care unit, reviewing courses of treatment for various cardiac patients and recommending drugs and dosages from time to time.

Each afternoon, White reviews their recommendations and probes their thinking about dosages, preventing drug interactions and avoiding adverse reactions. Occasionally he modifies their suggested therapies.

"Once the students have been here for a while," he says, "their knowledge base builds and they offer solid plans for patient care, but in the early days they need a little more guidance."

Students participating in this program have often been well prepared by White's undergraduate courses in cardiology drugs and evaluating drug literature. Some of them have also engaged in hands-on research at the University that gives them experience in conducting a clinical trial.

"I had a student three years ago who was interested in doing research with me," White recalls. "Students don't want to just go over charts; they want to see real people, so I tried to come up with a way they could do real research on campus. But it had to be something relatively innocuous.

"I said, 'what about natural products and their effect on EKG and blood pressure?'" The students settled on ginseng, since there wasn't any published information about its effect on these readings.

Guided by White and his postdoctoral fellows and funded with a couple of hundred UConn dollars, the students took tablets of the herb, put them in capsules and set up a study using students who received either the ginseng or a placebo. Then they gave EKGs and blood pressure exams to the volunteers and evaluated the results.

The study did not find a relationship between ginseng and unusual EKG or blood pressure readings. That in itself is useful information since the herb is taken by millions of people who believe it confers various benefits. What's more, students gained greatly from the experience.

"This was their project; they did it," he says. "They set up the study and presented their research in several forums. They also added to their knowledge of EKG and blood pressure readings."

Much of White's research focuses on the prevention or treatment of arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat, in patients undergoing open heart surgery.

"Six hundred thousand people in the U.S. have open heart surgery, and 30 percent of them develop an arrhythmia while in the hospital. Usually it goes away on its own, but it increases the risk for additional hospitalization and stroke. Since it's also accompanied by low blood pressure, it generally makes the patient feel crappy," he says.

White performed a landmark clinical trial in which he gave one group of patients an anti-arrhythmia drug called amiodarone and the other group a placebo. The study showed that the patients receiving amiodarone were less likely to develop the arrhythmia, other symptoms and stroke after surgery. The study has the potential to affect patient care in Connecticut and across the country.

To conduct this trial, White first had to study a reported interaction between amiodarone and fentanyl, the usual anesthetic used in this type of surgery. He believed that an earlier study's finding that the two drugs interacted in a negative way was flawed. His trial, widely hailed in professional circles, concluded that amiodarone was safe.

He's now evaluating innovative ways pacemaker technology and the use of the element magnesium may help minimize arrhythmia. As these studies are completed, it's a good bet that White will live up to a colleague's prediction: "He's poised to make great strides in pharmacologic research in the future."

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