Q&A with Sen. Doug Jones: Health Care

U.S. Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) recently sat down with the Huntsville Business Journal and discussed issues important to our state and nation. This is the second installment of five reports from the interview. Today’s topic is health care.

HBJ: What can you tell us about health care in Alabama?

Sen. Jones: Health care has been one of the priorities in our office for a lot of reasons.

Sen. Jones: “I have been a strong proponent of Medicaid expansion in Alabama. We made a huge mistake by not doing it.” (Photo/Steve Babin)

Alabama is still a poor state and we’re an unhealthy state. We need better health care outcomes and we’ve got to keep health care in rural parts of Alabama.

We’ve lost 13 or so hospitals in the last seven to eight years, and about seven or eight of those hospitals have been in rural areas. And you’re not going to keep a community if you don’t have health care in that area.

We’ve done a number of things.

First of all, I’ve worked with Sen. (Richard) Shelby (R-Ala.) and Congresswoman (Terri) Sewell (D-Ala.) to get the Centers for Medicare Medicaid Services (CMS) folks to meet with us to try to change the Medicare Wage Index (MWI). The Wage Index is how reimbursements for Medicare and Medicaid services are paid.

Alabama’s had the lowest reimbursement rate in the country. The index formula was such that you stayed at the bottom; once you got there, you couldn’t pull back up.

We brought the CMS director in and talked to her about that.

For years, people would write letters and talk about it a little bit, but we actually put it into action. The director changed that and now Alabama’s wage index has been increased significantly; it will bring about $40 million to $50 million in for health care in Alabama.

HBJ: What about Medicaid Expansion?

Sen. Jones: I have been a strong proponent of Medicaid expansion in Alabama. We made a huge mistake by not doing it.

We didn’t do it in Alabama for two reasons, one reason was purely political. There was also a concern at the time about how we would pay for it.

The Affordable Care Act had the name “ObamaCare” attached to it. Everybody in Montgomery would run around saying that “we can’t do anything, that’s got President Obama’s name on it.”

The people who suffered most were the people who needed the Medicaid insurance. Anecdotally, we have seen all the states that did the Medicaid expansion bring in billions of dollars to the states’ economies.

So, the people of Alabama also suffered because they didn’t have billions of dollars coming in.

Health care outcomes have gone up which also helps the states’ economy. It helps businesses, it helps education and you name it, across the board.

I’ve got a bill pending called the States Achieving Medicaid Expansion (SAME) Act that would give the 16 states who have not expanded an opportunity to get a “second bite of the apple.”

I think the House of Representatives will likely pass it this year, whether it will be part of (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell’s “graveyard,” I don’t know. We’ve got close to 400 bills that the House has passed that are stacking up on Mitch’s desk.

He relishes in being called the “Grim Reaper,” and that’s unfortunate.

HBJ: What about prescription drugs?

Sen. Jones: The other thing that we’ve been looking at with the administration in a bipartisan way, is to lower prescription drug prices.

It’s a big deal. Drug prices are an issue for us.

There are several other things that are out there, such as more transparency in drug pricing; getting generics to market faster.

The thing that’s not in the president’s budget is giving Medicare an opportunity to negotiate drug prices. I’m not sure why the president is opposed to that, but he is.

HBJ: Let’s talk about maternal and infant health.

Sen. Jones: We’ve got a number of bills pending that will try to address maternal health and infant health.

It’s a huge problem in this state. We’ve gotten a little bit better on infant mortality, but we’re still one of the highest in infant mortality in the country; we’re one of the highest in maternal mortality.

A state that prides itself on family values, a pro-life state, we have high rates of that, and that’s unconscionable.

(Tomorrow: Sen. Jones discusses international trade and tariffs)


New Technology and New Response Model Creates Need for New 911 Call Center

After 22 years, the 911 Call Center is getting a new home.

During the past two decades, not only has the Huntsville-Madison County area outgrown its own infrastructure, the call center has been bursting at the seams.

“Nobody does 911 better than we do” – Ernie Blair (Photo/Steve Babin)

Along with the Huntsville-Madison County 911 Call Center, there are seven other agencies that house their communication activities within the building. Madison County Sheriff’s Office, Madison County Fire Department, Huntsville Police Department, Huntsville Fire and Rescue, City of Madison Police Department, City of Madison Fire Department, and Huntsville Emergency Medical Services all have a presence at the 911 Call Center.

A key advantage is seamless efficiency in communication and response. And Huntsville-Madison County 911 was one of the first agencies to embrace this multi-agency model.

To this end, the new 911 Call Center will be twice the size of the original.

Complete with larger conference and training rooms, all with state-of-the-art technology. A dedicated IT lab that has raised tables and lab benches.

There’s a ton of rebar and lots of concrete in the mix, too. The main call center area is built underground with steel reinforced concrete and will be able to withstand an F5 tornado.

“It’s been ‘a minute’ since the groundbreaking on that freezing day in December 2017. Sometime in mid-spring the dream will become reality. We’re looking at April or May 2020, May being the latest timeframe,” said Ernie Blair, CEO of the center. “Then, we’ll need three months to move, once we get certificate of occupancy.

“We’re using this opportunity to upgrade our technology. Technology is changing so fast; we’re running to catch up. The ways that people communicate has changed – 85 percent of 911 calls are now made by cell phone.”

The new 911 Center will have larger conference and training rooms and a dedicated IT lab. (Photo/Steve Babin)

The area’s explosive growth and development has impacted the center’s completion timeline.

“We’re still under budget and were ahead of schedule until three to four months ago,” said Blair. “All the resources are stretched; general contractors are having a hard time keeping the subs on the jobs.”

As far a deadline for being out of the existing facility, there isn’t one.

“We don’t have a deadline,” said Blair. “There are two groups looking to buy the old building: the City of Huntsville and Huntsville Utilities. The latest I’ve heard is that they’re working together.”

Blair, though, has confidence in the center and the personnel.

“Nobody does 911 better than we do. We are the largest center in the state and one of the few combined centers,” said Blair. “We’re important to the quality of life and public safety, everyone is saving a life every day.

“It’s the coolest job anyone could have.”



Huntsville Classic, Korn Ferry Tour Join for Huntsville Championship

The Huntsville Classic golf tournament and fundraiser, a community-wide staple since 1989, is joining forces with the Korn Ferry Tour to provide a week-long event in the city.

The Huntsville Hospital Foundation, a nonprofit fundraiser, announced a partnership with the Huntsville Championship. The tournament is in its first year.

Golf fans will have the chance to play with Korn Ferry Tour players in the Pro-Am, or watch tournament play through a variety of ticket options. The Huntsville Championship will take place April 20-26 at The Ledges. The Huntsville Classic dinner and concert will be May 7 at the Von Braun Center.

Proceeds will benefit the Community Foundation of Greater Huntsville and the new Huntsville Hospital Foundation Fund at the Community Foundation.

“As our region grows, collaboration and cooperation are more important now than ever before,” Chris Hanback, chairman of the Huntsville Hospital Foundation Board of Trustees, said in a press release. “These exciting changes to our 30-year-old signature event will provide new opportunities for the Foundation’s growth and impact. And, of course, the mission of the Classic remains the same — to raise essential funds needed to support our local, not-for-profit hospital. Without this event, key lifesaving equipment would not be possible.”

Penn Garvich serves as tournament chairman of the Huntsville Championship, which is one of 28 sites nationally and internationally on the Korn Ferry Tour.

“The Huntsville Championship is honored to partner with Huntsville Hospital Foundation,’’ he said. “From the beginning, our focus has been about providing a premier Korn Ferry Tour golf event while also giving back to the community.’’

The Korn Ferry Tour replaced the Nationwide Tour, the final level before players reached the PGA. The Korn Ferry Tour has 28 events scheduled for 2020 in 20 states and four countries. The former PGA Q-School is also now part of this tour.

Majors champions Justin Thomas, Jason Day, Bubba Watson and Zach Johnson all played the Korn Ferry Tour.

According to its press release, Huntsville Hospital Foundation inspires philanthropic partners to invest in medical technology and programs that advance Huntsville Hospital’s mission to improve the health patients in its region of 1.1 million residents. Through the generosity of its donors over its 41-year history, it has grown to almost $38.5 million in assets and has distributed more than $54 million toward Huntsville Hospital’s service to its patients.

The Alabama-based sports marketing and event management firm Knight Eady operates the Huntsville Championship.

Urgent Care for Children Celebrates Grand Opening of Madison Location

MADISON — Urgent Care for Children, a physician-owned pediatric urgent care provider, has opened an after-hours clinic in Madison.

Urgent Care for Children’s pediatricians and pediatric nurse practitioners offer acute diagnostic and treatment for non-life-threatening medical needs after-hours and on weekends.

“As a pediatrician, I understand providing quality medical care for your child. As a parent, I understand the convenience that an after-hours clinic offers to busy families,” said UC4C founder and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Allury Arora. “Urgent Care for Children was founded on the principles of quality care with less waiting and we look forward to displaying that commitment to our Madison patients and their families.”

Urgent Care for Children treats pediatric patients ages newborn to 21 experiencing non-life-threatening illnesses and injuries ranging from fever and flu to allergies and acute asthma.

The clinic offers an on-site laboratory, x-ray service and in-house pharmacy. Walk-ins are welcome or patients can Save Your Spot online – https://childrensurgent.com/save-your-spot-online/.

“At Urgent Care for Children, we understand that your child’s illnesses or injuries don’t follow normal business hours. We seek to provide quality, compassionate care when you need it most: after school, after bedtime or after your pediatrician’s office is closed,” said Urgent Care for Children CEO Bannon Thorpe. “We are proud to join the medical community in Madison and create a continuum of care for children and families in the Huntsville-area.”

Urgent Care for Children Madison is open everyday and sees patients from 2-10 p.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekends. The clinic is at 8490 U.S. 72 near Balch Crossing.

Acclinate Seeks to Educate Minorities on Importance of Clinical Trials

Imagine, two people walking down the street toward each other. They both have asthma and their doctors have just prescribed them a new inhaler that’s just hit the market.

As fate would have it, as they approach one another, they both are hit with an asthma attack. Both patients use their inhalers. One person gets immediate relief, the other one doesn’t and dies before the ambulance can get there.

How could something like this happen? More easily than many people realize.

                         Dr. Del Smith

“Sometimes it’s about ‘did this medicine work as good as it should’ and sometimes it’s a matter of life and death,” said Dr. Delmonize “Del” Smith, founder and president of Acclinate Genetics.

As modern medicine advances, it’s become more clear that genetic makeup plays a larger role in the efficacy the drugs they are prescribed than originally believed, according to Smith.

“Before we knew what we know about genomics, an aspirin was an aspirin was an aspirin, for everyone,” he said. “But, then we would scratch our heads and say ‘why was this particular drug not having an impact on certain groups and certain populations?’

“We just didn’t have enough data and knowledge to understand why.”

Fortunately, this scenario hasn’t happened, at least not exactly like what’s presented above, and Smith and his colleagues at Acclinate are working to make sure it never happens.

According to Acclinate, it’s estimated that, by 2060, non-Caucasians in America will outnumber Caucasians and, right now, ethnic minorities make up about 40 percent of the U.S. population, but only 2-16 percent of the participants in clinical studies.

“As our country becomes more diverse, the time is now to address the underrepresentation of minorities and people of color in genomic research and clinical trials,” Smith said.

The Food and Drug Administration is taking notice of the disparity, too.

Smith said the agency recently said if a drug company is going to bring a new drug to the market, then that drug had to be adequality tested on the makeup of the target market. Specifically, if a drug is made to target an illness that’s more prevalent in African-Americans, then it needs to be tested using more African-American subjects than ones from other groups, which doesn’t always happen.

Finding enough people to participate in those studies is where Acclinate comes in.

Acclinate, located on the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology campus, was founded with the goal of assisting other clinical research organizations with the diversification of their research samples by expanding their genomic research and clinical trials to include diverse ethnic groups.

“This is something that most people don’t think about when they think about health disparity and health inequality,” Smith said. “Mostly they think about access to health care and doctors, but we believe that this is a significant part of that equation, and this is the part that we want to try to address.”

Basically, Acclinate focuses on building databases of willing participants focusing on minority subjects that they can provide to various companies when they are putting together various drug trials.

The biggest challenge in finding participants is overcoming the misconceptions and lack of knowledge on the subject and finding the right subjects.

For example, right now, Acclinate is looking for a number of African-American men who are HIV positive to take part in a trial for drug aimed at treating the disease. That’s a highly specific group of people.

“How do we do what we do? Part of it is educational awareness, because there is a significant barrier when it comes to people’s willingness to participate in clinical trials, particularly if these individuals are minorities,” Smith said. “Unless these individuals are going through an illness, for example, a late stage of cancer where they are not having any success with their current treatment. What we find is they are much more willing to take part in these clinical trials.

“But, if you go to an individual who is fairly healthy, who hasn’t really thought about this, and you start talking to him about clinical trials, particularly within certain groups, and in their mind they are thinking I don’t want to be a science experiment. I don’t want the government injecting me with things.

“So, we have to spend a tremendous amount of time educating people on why it’s important.”






Huntsville’s Burgeoning Regional Economy Part 2: Right-sizing Lifestyle with Quality of Life

(This is the second and final installment of a two-part story on the area’s growing economy.)

Recently, Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle shared his vision for Huntsville in terms of an average sized pie. He, along with business owners and civic officials, stood at city center – what Battle calls Huntsville’s “living room” – and looked out in every direction to the edges of the pie’s crust.

What they see are active growth corridors ushering in a significant expansion of the original Huntsville pie, which is accelerating economic growth throughout the North Alabama region.

“Instead of dividing the pie into fifteen different pieces that get smaller the more users you add, we made the whole pie bigger so we could divide it up differently with more restaurants, entertainment and activity venues, more places to spend retail dollars,” he said. “With a bigger pie, each slice is more valuable.”

The success of Twickenham Square, a multi-use development built right in the heart of downtown Huntsville’s medical district and anchored by The Artisan luxury apartments and a Publix, has spurred the development of four more multi-use (multi-purpose or mixed-use) sites in the downtown area.

These developments require the right balance of residential, retail, and commercial space, usually surrounded by a pedestrian-friendly traffic pattern, walking trails and/or parks, and plenty of amenities and activities.

Sealy Realty’s Avenue Huntsville (and the new Avenue Madison); CityCentre at Big Spring with the new AC Hotel by Marriott; the long-awaited Constellation, breaking ground this fall on the old Heart of Huntsville site at Clinton Avenue; and a new development by Rocket Development Partners on the former site of the Coca-Cola plant on Clinton Avenue across from the VBC are either already established or coming soon to downtown Huntsville.

“People ask whether mixed-use/multi-use developments are replacing traditional malls and shopping centers,” said Battle. “But I think you have to look at each one individually. People are looking for more live, work, play types of environments, but I think what we are seeing today is a shift. Is it permanent? Probably some of it is, but I won’t be surprised to see it shift back.”

Max Grelier, co-founder of RCP Companies who developed the AC Hotel as part of CityCentre, as well as MidCity District on the old Madison Square Mall property, agrees.

“Retail centers are not dead. They’re just changing based on consumer behavior,” he said. “Old-style retail centers still play a role in our communities. A good ‘convenience’ style retail center is needed to support suburban neighborhoods.

“However, retailers across most retail center formats are shrinking their footprints and using technology and distribution to keep up with the trends and competition.”

But Battle points out that many online retailers, such as Duluth Trading Company who have been online-only retailers, are building mortar-and-brick stores like the one they opened at Town Madison in June.

And even online behemoth Amazon is now putting stores throughout the U.S.

“I just got back from Nagoya, Japan where they still have huge department stores that are very active because people want to look at what they’re going to buy, touch it, experience the kind of cloth it’s made of and see how it fits,” Battle said.

“When you look at Parkway Place, they are doing very well, and we recently added an apartment component to Bridge Street Town Centre to add a ‘live’ component to it and Research Park’s work and play.

“But when you look at the old Madison Square Mall, it could be found on a site called DeadMalls.com,” Battle said. “We built a lot of malls back in the 1960s and 1970s – probably too many. I think we are now right-sizing back to what we need. There’s still a place for pure shopping like Parkway Place, but I say you need both to succeed.”

Charlie Sealy of Sealy Realty has developed several residential properties including The Belk Hudson Lofts and The Avenue Huntsville, which also has a retail component in downtown Huntsville.

Sealy is also building Avenue Madison that will have a retail and parking component in downtown Madison. He said the trend for new developments will be weighted more towards multi-use developments in the future.

“However, the older style shopping centers and malls won’t be replaced anytime soon unless they are old, obsolete, and really in need of replacement anyway,” said Sealy. “These [mixed-use] developments are definitely what residents and consumers prefer now because of the experience they produce.”

Grelier said the mixed-use developments come in a variety of styles.

“These developments are a type of urban development strategy that blends residential, commercial, cultural, institutional, and/or entertainment uses to initiate more consumer interactions by creating walkable, livable, and experiential communities,” said Grelier. “Mixed-use developments can take the form of a single building, a city block, or entire districts.

“Traditionally, human settlements have developed in mixed-use patterns; however, with industrialization of the U.S., as well as the invention of the skyscraper, governmental zoning regulations were introduced to separate different functions, such as manufacturing, from residential areas.”

Joey Ceci, president of The Breland Companies, which is developing Town Madison and the new Clift Farm project on U.S. 72 in Madison, sees it differently.

“I think we are seeing the death of the supercenter more than malls,” said Ceci. “Those centers with huge parking lots and a row of big box stores lined up next to each other – for one thing people just don’t like that huge parking field and, two, from a developer’s standpoint, if something happens and a business closes or moves out, it is very difficult to repurpose that huge space left behind by a store the size of Target or TJ Maxx. You can use a big box space for a trampoline center or an entertainment center, but you can’t put a restaurant in there.

“Multi-purpose developments are making that space work better by integrating residential into it via restaurants and everyday neighborhood retail like a dry cleaner or hair salon. The idea is to take the new urbanist movement that everyone is following and make smaller blocks of space so that if, in 20 years, that block is no longer viable, knock it down and put something else there. It’s a matter of making it more sustainable over time.”

Sustainability is the focus at Town Madison where Madison Mayor Paul Finley is looking to more than the casual Rocket City Trash Pandas fan to help build out that development.

He’s getting some help from travel sports and softball/baseball recruiters and scouts who will enjoy the regional draw of the new Pro Player Park, just off Wall-Triana Highway.

“The new Pro Player Park and everything Town Madison offers will definitely get foot traffic to our hotels; however, workforce development secures regional success which will also help us locally in aspects of infrastructure and schools,” said Finley.

Finley also points to the success of the Village at Providence, one of the area’s very first mixed-use developments built in 2003, as an example of how popular pedestrian-friendly mixed-use communities have become.

“A mixed-use development offers a live-work-play experience right outside of your front door,” said Finley. “This is appealing to young professionals, established mid-lifers, and retirees alike. These developments are multigenerational that attract businesses to the area.”

“Mixed-use developments are replacing declining malls because they are often well-located within a region that affords them premium access and site metrics,” said RCP’s Grelier who is striving to make the old mall property economically viable again. “When this is the case, there is typically strong demand for several multiple property types such as hospitality, residential, office, restaurants, and retail.

“Single-use commercial centers are becoming more difficult to sustain given changing consumer behavior related to online shopping, and demographic trends focusing on experiences rather than traditional brick-and-mortar shopping.”

However, Grelier said when they purchased the old mall property in 2015, they had a strategy ready for MidCity.

“We began working with the city and Urban Design Associates (UDA) to create a mixed-use project that would meet market demand and help reverse the decline of the West Huntsville commercial corridor,” he said. “We also had a broader, more aspirational strategy in collaboration with the city to use the MidCity District as regional economic growth tool by addressing the ‘next-generation’ workforce demand in Cummings Research Park.”

Grelier said they engaged nationally known market research consultants to perform third-party market studies to guide them in developing programming for a proper balance of uses.

“We used the information from the studies to collaborate with the City and UDA to produce a complete district business plan that would maximize regional draw by creating diverse layers of use and programming at the property,” Grelier said.

“Much of the emphasis is on highlighting our local cultural assets and identifying destination venues like TopGolf, public parks, and an amphitheater to establish a foundation around art and culture.”

He said this is now happening through connections with Huntsville’s and Muscle Shoals’ regional music legacy to bring a world-class 8,500-capacity amphitheater to the development.

“We believe the amphitheatre will be very successful and play a vital role in the elevation of the region as a place you want to live,” Grelier said. “There’s a strong demand for weekend entertainment so the music initiative happening in North Alabama will not only keep locals from traveling to spend in nearby markets, it will attract more weekend tourism to our region.”

Sealy said there is a strategy involved in where they build these mixed-use developments as well.

“These developments are really a long-term strategy in the sense that consumer preferences are shifting this way, so we are building for what is more popular now and appears will be more popular in the future,” he said. “… We are trying to draw certain people and jobs from other cities.  These developments are a recruiting tool and regional draw when we are competing against bigger cities for the same talent.

“Some people, particularly millennials, desire this type of environment for living or work, so we need them to attract that population …. They will spread through the regional area, but they need a certain density of people to work, so they will be concentrated in the growth corridors where the population and jobs are the largest.”

And, now, there is something for just about everyone.

“You hear people say, ‘Huntsville has some pretty cool breweries downtown, I can have some fun on Friday night, go see a baseball game, spend the night, go shop at Bridge Street, play some TopGolf, and get brunch at Stovehouse on Sunday’,” said Ceci. “It makes us a lot like Chattanooga – a kind of weekend destination where people say, ‘Wow! Huntsville is a great place to go for the weekend. There is always something to do.’”

Sealy said the mixed-use strategy is rewarding.

“I enjoy working on mixed-use projects because there is a huge emphasis on architecture, walk-ability, streetscape,” said Sealy. “The multi-use developments are a bigger challenge, but it is a rewarding creative process.”

Battle said the revitalization of one area pays benefits to the entire city.

“The Live, Work, Play strategy has always been our city plan,” said Battle. “Revitalize one area using the profits of another area we have revitalized and watch the spread of that revitalization until eventually the whole city is revitalized from one end to the other in every direction.”

Trash Pandas, SportsMed, Crestwood Announce Long-Term Partnership


MADISON – The Rocket City Trash Pandas, SportsMED Orthopedic and Spine Center, and Crestwood Medical Center have announced a multi-year corporate partnership, which will include naming rights to the Stadium Club in the Trash Pandas’ new ballpark in Madison.

It was also announced that orthopedic surgeon Dr. Troy Layton has been named by the Los Angeles Angels to be the Trash Pandas’ team physician. The Trash Pandas are the Double-A affiliate of the Angels.

“SportsMED has long been associated with athletics in this area – from high school to college, and the pro level,” said Ralph Nelson, CEO of the Trash Pandas. “We welcome the experienced staffs at Crestwood and SportsMED, and are thrilled to have Dr. Layton – who also served the Huntsville Stars – as the Trash Pandas’ team physician.

“With the outstanding facilities at Crestwood Medical Center, combined with Dr. Layton’s amazing experience, the Trash Pandas’ players will be in excellent hands. We are excited and gratified to be partners with SportsMED and Crestwood.”

“Crestwood is proud to continue our support of the North Alabama community by partnering with the Rocket City Trash Pandas as its hospital provider,” said Crestwood Medical Center CEO Dr. Pam Hudson. “Baseball is back in our area for families to enjoy and we are honored to be a part of this exciting community asset.”

The Crestwood and SportsMED brands and logos will also be prominently featured throughout the ballpark. The club on the suite level will be named the SportsMED Stadium Club.

“We are excited and honored to be a part of this organization,” said SportsMED CEO Blake Bentley. “We visited the stadium this week and it is unbelievable; everything is first class. We’ve had a long relationship with baseball in the region and we’re glad it’s back in the Rocket City.”

The Trash Pandas will open their inaugural season next year with their home debut set for April 15 at 6:35 p.m. against the Mississippi Braves at the new ballpark in Town Madison.

New Tower is Hospital’s Largest Project in Nearly 40 Years

Huntsville Hospital has broken ground on the biggest medical construction project in the downtown area in almost four decades.

The new Orthopedic & Spine Tower will feature 375,000 square feet of surgical, patient care and specialized physical rehabilitation space in the heart of the hospital campus. The tower will house the hospital’s orthopedic and spine surgery programs.

Scheduled to open in 2021, the seven-story building is across Gallatin Street from the main entrance of Huntsville Hospital; a walking bridge will connect the buildings.

“As our community and region continue to grow, our hospital is keeping pace with the need for advanced health care services and facilities,” said David Spillers, CEO of Huntsville Hospital Health System.

Jeff Samz, the system’s COO, said the Orthopedic & Spine Tower will have 72 private patient rooms, as well as 24 state-of-the-art operating rooms. It will also have a restaurant on the ground floor.

“With the new tower, we will also eliminate most of the semi-private accommodations in our main hospital,” Samz said.

Designed by Chapman Sisson Architects, the Orthopedic & Spine Tower will fill a city block at the corner of Gallatin Street and St. Clair Avenue. It is the largest medical construction project in downtown Huntsville since the hospital opened its north tower in 1980. Robins & Morton is the general contractor.

HudsonAlpha Scientist on Forefront of Addressing Rare Diseases


Dr. David Bick named to Alabama Rare Disease Council

Alabama is working to be among the leaders in diagnosing rare diseases and Dr. David Bick of

HudsonAlpha’s Institute for Biotechnology is part of the strategy.

Bick, a clinical geneticist and a faculty investigator at HudsonAlpha, sees rare disease patients

at the Smith Family Clinic for Genomic Medicine located on the institute’s Huntsville campus.

Because of his expertise in genomic medicine and more than 20 years of clinical experience

Bick was recently appointed by Gov. Kay Ivey to the newly created Alabama Rare Disease

Council, established by the Alabama Legislature.

“There are a lot of people in Alabama with rare diseases and our purpose is to help our state’s

leaders address those needs,” Bick says of the 10-member council. “We want to improve the

healthcare of the citizens of our state and our leaders want to get expert advice in thinking

about it.”

He describes it as a diverse council with everyone from healthcare providers to researchers.

“There’s a lot of representation on the council that bring a variety of voices together in a room

if you will. The council is charged with trying to improve our understanding of how to

diagnose and make an impact on these on families dealing with rare diseases.

“If we can collect information on impact and cost and coordinate and collaborate among

different groups as a way to better inform lawmakers about what’s going on we can help

citizens to improve their care and overall health,” he added.

He says the council was established to be a voice for individuals with rare conditions, and

similar council’s are being set up around the country.

It’s also about realization of what genetics testing can provide.

“Being a geneticist, we see people with neurologic or immunologic conditions that while they

may be rare conditions, there are quite a bit (of people) out there with it. There’s a lot of

work being done in Alabama for medicine in general but one thing we tried to emphasize is

rare disease is not so rare,” he says.

For example, he says, Cystic fibrosis affects one in 2,500.

“That doesn’t sound like a very big number but we have all heard of it,” he says. “Take that

across the whole state and it all adds up.”

Another example, he says, is Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a condition that involves spinal cord

cells dying, usually in children but has been seen in adults at about one in 10,000.

“When you add up the numbers, it adds up to big numbers,” Bick says. “If one in 10 Americans

have a rare diseases, that’s about 400,000 in Alabama.”

Patients often arrive a Bick’s office after seeing multiple doctors or specialists who have gone

as far as they can with traditional testing models.

“A neurologist can say to a person who is having trouble walking that their condition has

something with the nerves in the legs,” Bick says. “It may be a peripheral neuropathy and

simple testing shows that but it may be that one of these rare conditions in which the nerves

are not working properly so we do DNA testing and look at the genes to determine the cause.”

For some, there is treatment. For other conditions, there is no treatment but there may be

clinical or pharmaceutical trials in which the patient might be interested in participating in or

following updates.

 Bick says when there are things that are not known from the testing, at least once it is known

what the condition is, the tests show if other family members are at risk for the condition and

if the condition will progress and if so, how it will progress.

 “People want to know what will happen to them, for example, if it’s nerves in the legs, could it

also impact other parts of the body? Sometimes it is yes, there are things we have to watch

out for or it may be simply the current symptoms are the only thing they will experience.

Bick says there is “tons” of research going on around rare genetic conditions for people who

have known conditions.

“We study them because we know how to develop a treatment but if we do not know what a

person has, how can we develop new treatments.”

Genetic testing is for those who have little or no family medical history. It’s also for those who

can’t get a diagnosis no matter how many tests or doctors they see.

The first step for genetic testing is to call to the clinic or get a doctor referral. A patient will

talk with a genetics counselor and if records are available from other doctors that have been

seen, they will be reviewed and costs will be discussed.

“After genome testing has been completed, if we can identify a genetic issue we will open up

lines of communication with the physician about the condition and see if we can further

identify the problem. Meanwhile, the doctor can tailor the patient’s care,” Bick says.

He says that of the 20,000 genes in the human genome, about 4,000 to 5,000 of them have

been connected to specific conditions. The remainder can be identified as doing its job or it’s

never been connected to a medical problem. Although there are hundreds of new conditions

figured out each year.

 “It gets us to lots of conditions already known and lots of others are being discovered,” Bick

says. “Once we’ve sequenced all the genes of a patient, we can go back every year or couple

of years to see if something new has turned up that would show a connection between a

specific gene and genetic condition.”

CFDRC acquisition to speed discovery of new antibiotics

A pair of HudsonAlpha companies are combining to speed the discovery of new antibiotics.

CFD Research Corp. has acquired the drug discovery division of iXpressGenes; both are associate companies at Huntsville-based HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology.

As part of the acquisition, CFDRC obtained iXG’s high-throughput antimicrobial discovery platform called EMAD (Extremophilic Microbiome Antimicrobial Discovery) and all key personnel associated with the division including the director, AJ Singhal.

“We are excited about integrating the EMAD platform with CFDRC’s existing biomedical technologies to accelerate the discovery of new antibiotics against biowarfare agents and drug-resistant bacteria,” said CFDRC President/CEO Sameer Singhal. “The EMAD platform will allow efficient discoveries … and lead to the development of new antibacterial natural products.”