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Tammy Nguyen to use early career award to investigate why diabetics have a hard time healing

Assistant professor of surgery receives Vascular and Endovascular Surgery Society award

By Colleen Locke

UMass Medical School Communications

January 25, 2021

Tammy T. Nguyen, MD, PhD, assistant professor of surgery, describes herself as a garbage collector. But it would perhaps be more accurate to say Dr. Nguyen is giving biomedical waste a purpose. She’s analyzing bone marrow to learn why diabetic patients with foot ulcers have a hard time healing.

Tammy T. Nguyen, MD, PhD

“When you have a skin breakdown, your immune cells come in and they help clear out the infection and build a tissue base that allows for new tissues to grow and heal your wound,” Nguyen said. “Because I know that healing stems from immune cells, my question is, does the diabetic patient have an immune system that makes them maladaptive to wound healing?”

Nguyen, who is the medical director of the Vascular Surgery Lower Extremity Wound Clinic at UMass Memorial Medical Center, has received a one-year, $22,500 grant to explore this question. The Vascular and Endovascular Surgery Society’s 2021 Early Career Faculty Research Award is designed to help new vascular surgical investigators initiate projects that will lead to additional funding. Nguyen, who received the award at the society’s 2021 winter meeting on Jan. 23, will present her findings at next year’s meeting.

“I want to understand why patients with diabetes have a hard time healing their foot wounds. I see these patients in vascular surgery because a lot of them have blood vessel disease that inhibit them from healing. However, even if you fix their blood vessel disease, sometimes they still have a hard time healing, suggestive of their underlying diabetes,” Nguyen said. “Diabetics in general are known to be poor wound healers. It doesn’t matter if it’s the foot or you operate on the belly—anywhere—they just don’t heal very well. And we don’t really know why.”

Nguyen will compare immune cells from diabetic patients who have had amputations as well as nondiabetic patients who have had to have amputations for other reasons.

Silvia Corvera, MD, the Endowed Chair in Diabetes Research and professor of molecular medicine, and Louis M. Messina, MD, the Johnnie Ray Cox Term Chair in Biomedical Research and professor of surgery, are Nguyen’s research mentors on the project. Jessica P. Simons, MD, MPH, associate professor of surgery, is her faculty sponsor.

Nguyen joined UMass Medical School as a faculty member in August after completing her residency here in June. The Southern California native is an MD/PhD graduate of the University of Utah School of Medicine. Her PhD is in biochemistry.

In November, Nguyen was able to combine her interests in vascular surgery and homeless medicine when she and Mallory Gibbons, NP, MS’16, nurse practitioner in the Division of Vascular Surgery at UMass Memorial Medical Center, organized a foot care fair for the homeless at the St. Francis Xavier Center in Worcester.

“You can imagine a person out on the streets who doesn’t have many resources—walking is really important to them,” Nguyen said.

Nguyen said of the 60 people screened, 10 were identified as needing additional follow-up care. Nguyen and the interdisciplinary team involved in the project were able to give out 40 pairs of shoes from Puma and Sneakerama and 200 pairs of socks. Nguyen hopes the fair will become a regular event.