Dr. Ethan Meltzer and Dr. Peter Sguigna: UT Southwestern Department of Neurology Medical Science Prize for Excellence in Neurology

By Lin Lofley

At UT Southwestern Medical School, the idea of students stepping out and running with an idea is old hat. It’s permitted; even encouraged.

So when Dr. Ethan Meltzer and Dr. Peter Sguigna met as first-year medical students at a party, and got to talking about their research interests, they discovered a shared curiosity about one particular area of neuroscience.

An award-winning collaboration was born as a result. The students soon were in the office of Dr. Elliot Frohman, Professor of Neurology and Neurotherapeutics, and of Ophthalmology, and Director of the Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Program.

Their idea: To explore the characterization of abnormalities in the transmission of light information from the retina to the hypothalamus, the part of the brain responsible for myriad bodily functions – body temperature, thirst, and circadian rhythms, among many others.

“We didn’t give them the question to answer,” Dr. Frohman said. “They came to us with the question, and they wanted to study it.”

Dr. Ethan Meltzer and Dr. Peter Sguigna
(l-r) Dr. Peter Sguigna and Dr. Ethan Meltzer 

Drs. Meltzer and Sguigna will share the 2014 UT Southwestern Department of Neurology Medical Science Prize for Excellence in Neurology, marking the first time the award has gone to more than one recipient.

“We had to do it that way,” Dr. Frohman said. “We had them ranked Number 1 and Number 2 for our award, but no one could say who was first and who was second. So on the board, we wrote that the award would go to ‘Ether’ – Ethan and Peter.

“That’s the most special thing about them: They don’t compete, they collaborate. You can’t emphasize their collaboration enough. I think they represent the wave of the future. And teams can far eclipse the power of individuals.”

Their ideas and findings have traveled well. In January 2013, they presented their preliminary observations at the Keystone MS Meeting in Big Sky, Montana. In May of last year, they presented their work first at MS and Neuroimmunology Grand Rounds at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, and then at Neurology Grand Rounds at the New York University School of Medicine. In October 2013, they were in Copenhagen, Denmark, presenting their research findings to the European Committee for the Treatment and Research of MS.

Their abstract was among 2,000 submitted, and was one of 100 accepted for review. Theirs was among five abstracts awarded “Best Research in MS in 2013,” and they were the only students whose work was so honored.

Dr. Sguigna, who’ll begin a residency in neurology and neuroscience at UT Southwestern, earned a degree in biomedical engineering from Texas A&M University after attending Jesuit College Preparatory in Dallas. He playfully said that being in the laboratory wasn’t immediately smooth sailing.

“In the first few seconds,” he said, “I felt a real sense of terror, and I asked myself ‘What have I done?’”

Dr. Meltzer, a graduate of J.J. Pearce High School in Richardson, earned an undergraduate degree in chemistry at Brandeis University. He’ll serve his residency in internal medicine and neurology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

Dr. Sguigna admits to “a strong interest in academic medicine,” and he’d like to teach someday, while Dr. Meltzer likes the research but said “the patient interactions are what I wanted when I came to medical school, and I still want those.”

Both give credit to Dr. Frohman and his staff at the Clinical Center for Multiple Sclerosis, especially Teresa Frohman, PA-C, Director of Neuro-Ophthalmology Research. Ms. Frohman is Dr. Frohman’s wife and chief collaborator.

“Dr. Frohman is accessible, and he uses every resource available to stay on the cutting edge of research and patient care,” Dr. Sguigna said. “And Teresa is remarkable. He always talks about her as being the person who makes things happen. We’ve seen that up close.”

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Dr. Frohman holds the Irene Wadel and Robert Atha Distinguished Chair in Neurology, and the Kenney Marie Dixon-Pickens Distinguished Professorship in M.S. Research.

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