By Dawn Brazell
In some ways, Justin Ellett feels like a
Ellett, winner of the
College of Graduate Studies Distinguished Graduate Award for 2011, went
through MUSC's Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) earning dual
M.D./Ph.D. degrees. Finally, eight years later, he's eager to start his
urology residency at MUSC.
"Friday is going to be a
pretty proud day with all the family being here," he said of graduation
day. "To reach the end of an eight-year program is a hard thing to wrap
your mind around."
To put it in perspective,
the new Hollings Cancer Center was just being built when he started
medical school, and he's been here long enough to be a founding member
of MUSC's CARES (community aid, relief, education and support) Clinic
that has become a successful non-profit organization providing free
medical care to the uninsured in Charleston.
Dr. Justin Ellett
"I am the only original
member left. It was my medical school class that was starting it, so
they all left me long ago—four years ago. I am the last founding member
left," he said, smiling and lamenting having recently hit the
The years have paid off,
though. Ellett, M.D., Ph.D., said he couldn't decide about pursuing
research or practicing medicine, so he decided to do both. It's been a
long journey and he now faces the tough challenge of carving out how
the surgeon-researcher model will play out. It's a blend of disciplines
that he's been told is tough to integrate.
Ellett smiles, admitting
ambition is a strong suit for him. The Medical Scientist Training
Program offered the broad background he wanted.
"It makes you a better
researcher because you have a good focus on what the patients look like
with the problem, and it makes a better physician because you can think
analytically and mechanistically about the problem."
Kenneth Chavin, M.D.,
Ph.D., said that in all his years of working with graduate students
that Ellett has risen above and beyond any others. "He's the most
deserving graduate student of anyone I know. It's his commitment and
doing above and beyond and his depth and breath of knowledge on any
subject he has explored and his general positive attitude."
MUSC will benefit from him
bringing his surgical-scientist approach to his urology residency, he
said. "His wonderful personality and bedside manner with patients will
just enhance his service. He embodies MUSC excellence and will bring
that to his residency."
Ellett was drawn to MUSC in part because of the interesting work in
Chavin's lab. Chavin, a surgeon-scientist, has been an important role
model for him, he said. Ellett liked that his research in primary graft
failure after transplantation with fatty livers had potential clinical
"We published several
papers and came across some new post-transplantation roles for some of
the immune cells in the fatty liver."
Unfortunately, as people
get increasingly obese, their livers begin to contain more fat, too, he
said. The hepatocytes, which are the functional cells of the liver,
actually accumulate fat inside them. Livers that are more than 30
percent fat are not eligible for transplantation since they do poorly.
"In fat livers, the cells don't have the energy to overcome the stress
of transplantation, so the fatty livers don't do as well and are not
used. It leads to the organs being discarded when they are perfectly
Given that there are three
times the number of patients needing liver transplants as there is
availability, Ellett hopes their research will lead to ways to make
more of these livers viable. The resident immune cells in the liver
produce a molecule that helps balance inflammation after
transplantation, and this production appears to be altered in fatty
Their research helped them
to better understand the altered immune mechanisms in fatty livers
after transplantation, which will hopefully lead to therapies that can
help reduce the inflammation in those fatty livers and increase their
usefulness in transplantation
The good news is that once
patients can get past that initial inflammatory period after
transplantation, the fat in the liver will start to clear. "Within
days, it can be acutely reversible. If we can just push them through
that first short period of reperfusion in the first few days, the fat
goes away and the liver can start functioning normally."
Ellett said it's
gratifying to do work that can lead to saving lives, especially given
the obesity trends that increasingly make transplantation more
difficult. The research part of his work takes patience, given that
it's a slow, arduous process. "One little experiment that generates
something useful goes a long way to getting you through the next five,
His residency will mean
juggling dual roles, but it also is part of what drives him. "I'm
interested in broader health problems—to be able to take a problem and
be able to correct it. You can help thousands of people by helping us
to understand more about a disease, but I also will be able to look a
patient in the eyes and help an individual."
One word people use to describe Ellett is compassionate. College of
Graduate Studies Dean Perry Halushka, M.D., Ph.D., said he's delighted
he's staying at MUSC. "I have had the pleasure to watch Justin grow not
only as an outstanding future clinician-scientist but also as an
individual with great leadership skills. He has not only been
very productive during his time in the laboratory working on his own
research but has also helped others with their research. Justin was one
of the founding members and then clinic director for the CARES Clinic,
a student–run free medical clinic."
Ellett said being part of
the clinic has been a wonderful experience for him. His second year of
medical school, he and his fellow medical students did an elective
course that required them to develop a plan to provide treatment for
the underserved population. They had to figure out everything from how
to recruit physicians to where to locate it. The clinic opened in
"It's been a great
experience as far as learning about practice management, fundraising
and grant writing as well as the obvious benefits of taking care of
patients who would otherwise not have medical care or would be in
Ellett has enjoyed
watching it take off and take root.
"It's been absolutely
amazing. We've seen thousands and thousands of patients and we have
hundreds of volunteers and great grant funding. It's been very
rewarding to see how far it has come."
Working at the clinic has
made him much more sensitive to the issues of underserved patients and
aware of regional health and medical system issues.
Another benefit was the
opportunity to work with students from other colleges. "You come to
MUSC and you go into your own little college, and you deal with people
also in your college and don't get exposed to the students in the
health professions and pharmacy. It's a great experience as far as
to other students, Ellett said it helped him keep his perspective in
graduate school. "You get so focused on what you're doing that it's
good to get out and to get an outlet—to focus on what's going on with
other people and not what's going on in my life. You can get very
myopic at some times, and it's easy to lose yourself in what you're
doing. It's good to get out and say this is what's going on with the
rest of the world. The patient population out there is so thankful and
so appreciative of what they're getting."
Next on the horizon is a
sailing trip in the Greek Isles with his wife. Ellett also probably
will be earning his black belt this fall, following in the steps of his
mentor, Chavin, with whom he does karate class. Chavin, who considers
himself a friend as well as colleague, said it's no surprise Ellett
would make his way to the top.
"He's a dinosaur. He's the
last of a dying breed that can do it all," said Chavin. "In this day
and age of the me generation, he is doing for him, but at the same time
he has gone way above and beyond—from helping to set up the CARES
Clinic to working with the Special Olympics. These are things that he
just gives back because he is that kind of person as well as being an
accomplished individual intellectually, academically as well as