Spring 2009
Forty Years of Learning, Healing and Discovering

synapse: University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine

College of photos from the first 40 years of the school

The University of Nevada School of Medicine celebrates its 40-year anniversary. Collage by Edgar Antonio Nunez.

The story about the 1969 founding and subsequent survival of the University of Nevada School of Medicine is a story about fighting against the odds.

Story by Anton Sohn, M.D., and Anne McMillin, APR

How could Nevada establish a medical school without a large tax basis, without a university teaching hospital, without patients or teaching physicians, without a unified Legislature, or without strong graduate programs in other medical fields? The answer is that it takes dedicated leaders committed to providing health care and medical education opportunities to Nevadans. The genesis of medical education in Nevada began before 1930 with Peter Frandsen, Ph.D., who provided guidance to more than 40 students by the time he retired in 1942. His students included Fred Anderson, M.D., Ernie Mack, Ph.D., Louis Lombardi, M.D., and Ken Maclean, M.D., who became medical leaders in the state.

Several other players came into the picture 25 years later when the federal government noted a shortage of physicians and provided funding for new medical schools. The trustees of Washoe Medical Center, now Renown Health, dedicated $300,000 to establish a medical school on its campus. The next player was the Desert Research Institute, which along with Renown formed the environmental pathophysiology laboratory at the hospital. DRI provided startup costs and Renown provided space for George Smith, M.D. and Dick Licata, Ph.D. to conduct research on the cardiac conduction system.

After formation of the laboratory the struggle began. University of Nevada, Reno President N. Edd Miller asked Smith to do a feasibility study for a medical school with Dean Tom O’Brien of the graduate school. When it was presented to the regents in January 1966, it caused immediate dissension.

Smith received orders to do another study and he was ready a year later. Anderson moved to “form a two-year school of basic medical sciences, taking the first class in the fall of 1971 or 1972.” The motion passed 6-2.

With the battle lines formed around the new school, Anderson and Smith understood its precarious political situation and successfully sought Gov. Paul Laxalt’s support. The politics of medical education in Nevada spread like wildfire to the Legislature, where support for the regents’ action was doused with cold water. When Bill O’Brien, M.D., Smith, Mack and Anderson got off the plane after seeking money from foundations in the East, they learned the Legislature had overturned the feasibility study. However, they had been successful in securing $500,000 in startup funds from the Commonwealth Foundation in New York.

The condemnation bombshell, ACR 14, Feb. 14, 1967, opposing the medical sciences program, would have killed the medical school. But by a stroke of luck, the resolution was referred to the education committee. On March 17, ACR 15 was introduced, ordering continuation of the study, referred to as the second feasibility study.

This study concluded that there was a deficit of 260 physicians and 600 nurses in Nevada. It found that the state’s economic growth would support the program with only modest state appropriations. The report concluded that a medical school should be based in Reno because the University had basic science departments, a life sciences library and the most hospital beds in the state at that time.

The regents approved the feasibility study in January 1969. It was adopted by the assembly and the senate shortly thereafter. As the final vote approached, supporters of the resolution scurried to make sure they had the votes needed for passage.

Time was short, the vote close and the outcome uncertain. Industrialist Howard Hughes made a last-minute offer in response to an ad in the Las Vegas Sun which appealed for support. Laxalt, in an unusual move, went to the Legislature and announced Hughes’ gift—$200,000 to $300,000 a year for 20 years. AB 130 passed 21 to 18 and Laxalt signed it into law on March 25, 1969. The School of Medical Sciences was established.

Now another battle began. Buildings, land, teachers, financial support, hospitals, and community physicians had to be located and recruited. Renown withdrew its offer because its own building program had started. The Legislature gave $48,000 for startup and $78,000 for remodeling buildings on the University campus.

Next, Smith met with administrators and medical staff of Nevada hospitals to persuade them to allow medical students to interact with patients. Physicians were recruited to be teachers.

As the two-year school reached maturity, one overwhelming fact became obvious—doctors tended to practice where they completed training. Fewer than a third of the first class returned to practice—converting to a four-year degree granting school would keep doctors in Nevada.

In December 1976, a proposal was made to convert to a four-year school. The regents passed the resolution unanimously and forwarded it to the 1977 Legislature. On April 14, the assembly passed ACR 18, extending the school to a four-year program awarding medical degrees. Legislators and Gov. Mike O’Callaghan passed the bill.

School looks to solidify interdisciplinary academics, research with new construction

As the University of Nevada School of Medicine enters into its fifth decade, plans are well underway to continue to position the institution as one of research and education excellence. By building on the accomplishments of the past, the school looks to the future to accommodate growth as well as to expand academic and research endeavors. Three new buildings on the slate to be constructed over the next several years will help realize this forward-thinking vision.

“These construction projects represent our commitment to excellence in basic science training and research for our small school which has a prominent basic science component,” said Ole J. Thienhaus, M.D., dean of the School of Medicine. “The research and development aspect of the private sector in biotechnology will be able to more readily partner with the School of Medicine to produce a competitive basic sciences campus.”

First new research facility in 30 years

The Center for Molecular Medicine on the Reno campus is the first new research facility to be built at the School of Medicine in nearly 30 years. Positioned just north of the current basic science research quadrangle, the center will house portions of the microbiology, pharmacology and physiology departments and will also serve as the headquarters for the Whittemore Peterson Institute for Neuro-Immune Disease.

The center, designed by Dekker/Perich/Sabatini Design, will create a dynamic environment inside the facility. The west wing will house a state-of-the-art vivarium, research laboratory and office space. The east wing will provide space for the Whittemore Peterson Institute along with a 96-person auditorium, two large meeting rooms and shared food service area. A groundbreaking ceremony was held in March 2007 and the first dirt was turned up by general contractor Clark & Sullivan in December 2008 on the approximately 107,000 square-foot building. The building is estimated to cost $79 million with funding from Senate Bill 105 introduced by the Nevada Legislature, federal funds flowing from research activities across campus and a generous donation from the Whittemore family.

“The facility represents a change in lab design that will facilitate the efforts of research teams versus the individual,” said Thomas Kozel, Ph.D., chair of the executive committee for the center.

The building’s design is based on guidelines published by the American Institute of Architecture for biomedical laboratory construction and focuses on sharing technology, dissemination of technology and intellectual interaction.

The center will be extremely energy efficient, separating research and administrative spaces in order to isolate heat-generating laboratory equipment into an area with robust cooling capabilities.

It will be a resource for northern Nevada in attracting biotech industries, while expanding the state’s scientific workforce needed for private sector investment. Kozel expects that when complete in the fall of 2010, the Center for Molecular Medicine will attract nearly 250 highly educated students and faculty to its halls for the purpose of biomedical research and training in an attractive, modern, flexible environment.

Dedicated health sciences space in Las Vegas

Two construction projects will move the school toward dedicated health sciences space in Las Vegas with the creation of the advanced clinical training and research center and the repurposing of space in an existing building on the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Shadow Lane campus for a state-of-the-art simulation center. These projects have been developed through a collaborative effort between the Health Sciences System of the Nevada System Higher Education, the School of Medicine and the UNLV and Nevada State College nursing schools.

“These buildings represent our commitment to broaden our clinical education in Las Vegas by putting some teeth into the clinical sciences on an interdisciplinary basis,” Thienhaus said.

UNLV facilities and nursing and School of Medicine faculty and Carpenter Sellers architects worked to design a four-story, approximately 72,000 square-foot training center that will house administrative, academic and research spaces for the medical and nursing schools.

On the first floor, the medical school will share auditorium spaces and student study areas with the nursing school. The second floor will be occupied exclusively by the School of Medicine for administrative space, a student lounge/on-call space, classrooms and small study rooms. The third and fourth floors will be used by the nursing school for administration and research space.

At an estimated project cost of about $60 million, the center is dependent on funding to be allocated from the state Legislature in the 2009 session and private fundraising goals in order for spring 2011 occupancy to become a reality.

Last October, the Health Sciences System was given the green light to initiate construction on a $15.75 million multi-disciplinary/multi-institutional clinical skills and simulation laboratory in Las Vegas. This project will house skills and simulation training programs for the School of Medicine and the UNLV and Nevada State College Schools of Nursing.

Renovation of approximately 31,000 square-feet will take place in an existing building on the Shadow Lane campus, adjacent to the UNLV School of Dental Medicine and across the street from University Medical Center facilities.

The simulation lab was designed in a collaborative effort with representatives from all three programs and the Health Sciences System to meet the common and unique needs of each program. This project is an example of the Health Sciences System’s mission and vision—facilitating multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional collaboration, programs and research.

This joint-use clinical skills laboratory will bring together medical and nursing students and faculty to share resources and ideas as they teach and train side-by-side.

The simulation lab was one of three initiatives funded as part of the Health Sciences System capital improvement projects during the 2007 legislative session. This project also received support from the Lincy Foundation and the federal government with the help of U.S. Sen. Harry Reid and the rest of the Nevada delegation. Construction is scheduled to be completed at the end of summer 2009 in time for the fall semester.

Completing the health sciences hub

Another health science building, the medical education and learning laboratory, collaboratively designed between the Health Sciences System, the School of Medicine and the Orvis School of Nursing, will be constructed on the Reno campus east of the Pennington Medical Education Building. It will form a new hub of medical and nursing student training in the northern half of the state.

“The building will employ state-of-the-art technology and enable us to double the size of our nursing and medical schools,” said John A. McDonald, M.D., Ph.D., vice president of the Division of Health Sciences.

“The building is the cornerstone of a focus on comprehensive, interdisciplinary care provided by health care teams.”

The medical education and learning laboratory will bring medicine and nursing together in a shared teaching environment. The facility will integrate the most recent advances in instructional technology and green building methods while making the interdisciplinary model a reality.

The building will be oriented in an east-west fashion in two wings with courtyards to facilitate free-flow between interior and exterior space. Designed by Sheehan/Van Wort/Bigotti Architects with management by Sundt Construction, the 59,000 square-foot building will cost approximately $45.4 million and also requires additional state and matching funds for fall 2011 occupancy.

The interior includes two lecture halls, an anatomy and physiology laboratory to accommodate 120 medical students, a multidisciplinary “wet/dry” lab for basic science, three labs to practice on computerized patient mannequins, “patient” rooms used for educational role play, study rooms, faculty and administrative space and a lounge.

When complete, the building will be the newest addition to the health sciences campus at the University of Nevada, Reno, which includes Pennington as its hub; the Brigham, Redfield, Anderson, Howard, Manville and Nellor buildings; and the Center for Molecular Medicine. These combined facilities will provide enough space to further solidify the commitment to serving Nevada’s health care needs.