Through his research, Jeffrey Burns, MD, is working to identify the
factors influencing the aging process and the onset of Alzheimer’s
disease. His long-term goal is to turn the KU Medical Center
Alzheimer and Memory Program into one of the country’s national
Alzheimer’s research centers.
“His clinical acumen, scientific expertise and leadership skills
mark Jeff Burns as an emerging leader on the national stage of
Alzheimer’s research and care,” says Dr. John Morris, director and
principal investigator at the Washington University Alzheimer’s
Disease Research Center.
Colleagues point to his ongoing research projects, the grants he has
attracted to support those projects, his newest book, tentatively
titled Mild Cognitive Impairment, as well as his leadership style and
easy-going personality. Currently, Burns has five active studies and
a couple of research collaborations underway. His second book on
dementia was published earlier this summer.
Unassuming and personable, the 39-year-old Burns makes time
to talk to a visitor at his office, located in the Landon Center for
Aging. The Brain Aging Project is the main research component
in the Alzheimer and Memory Program, and Burns is the project’s
principal investigator. The project focuses on how structural MRI
brain changes relate to various lifestyle factors, including fitness and
physical activity, in normal aging and in Alzheimer’s disease.
A native Kansan, Burns graduated from the University of Notre
Dame and attended KU Medical School. He completed his neurology
residency at the University of Virginia and completed a two-year
post-doctoral fellowship in geriatric neurology and Alzheimer’s
disease at the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at Washington
University in St. Louis.
Burns returned to Kansas City from St. Louis in July 2004 after being
recruited by Dr. Richard Barohn, MD, chair of the Department of
Neurology at KU Medical Center, to start an Alzheimer’s disease
research program. Burns launched the KU Alzheimer and Memory
Program in November 2004.
“It was a hard decision to leave Washington University, but the
opportunities in Kansas City and at KU are great,” Burns says.
Burns is an assistant professor in KUMC’s Department of Neurology
and assistant director of the General Clinical Research Center, where
he coordinates the center’s educational components.
Burns co-authored his latest book with Dr. John Morris, his former
colleague and mentor at Washington University.
“I continue to interact with him frequently and he still plays the
role of mentor,” Burns says of Morris. “He’s an amazing leader and
scientist and has influenced my current career path immensely.”
Morris collaborated with Burns on the book Dementia: An Atlas of
Investigation and Diagnosis, which was published earlier this year.
The book, which examines the clinical and neuropathological
diagnoses of dementia, was co-authored by Burns, Morris, Daniel
W. McKeel, Jr., and Thomas M. Meuser, also former colleagues
at Washington University. It’s aimed at physicians interested in
disorders of dementia.
”Jeff Burns is the model of the young physician-investigator who can
integrate skillful observations from his patients with Alzheimer’s
disease with the goals of his research studies to better understand
factors that might influence susceptibility to developing the illness,”
Dr. John Morris says.
Burns already has accomplished a great deal at KUMC in a relatively
short time, says Morris, including putting KUMC firmly on the map
as a site for national studies of Alzheimer’s disease. Those studies
include trials of potential new Alzheimer therapies that would not
have come to KUMC were it not for Dr. Burns, Morris says.
In April, the program was invited to participate in a national study,
which assesses the role of omega-3 fish oil on Alzheimer’s disease.
Burns’ first paper explored the link between abnormalities in insulin
regulation and Alzheimer’s disease progression. The paper has been
accepted by the journal Neurology, and data from the project has been
reported at multiple national and international meetings.
In September, Burns received the 2007 Early Achievement in
Medicine Award from the KU Alumni Association. In 2006, he was
awarded the prestigious National Institute for Health Mentored
Patient-Oriented Research Career Center award, a five-year grant
that will provide support for Burns and the Brain Aging Program.
But Burns gives much of the credit to Neurology Department chair
Richard Barohn, citing what a great influence he’s been.
“He’s given me the opportunity and has worked hard and continues
to work hard making sure I have what I need in terms of time and
support,” Burns says. “He’s done incredible things on the KUMC
campus, including creating the General Clinical Research Center,
and it’s been inspiring and a great learning experience to work with
him as he helps transform clinical research on campus.”
When asked if there was someone who inspired him early on to
go into the field of neurology, Burns named his older brother,
Ted Burns, MD, also a neurologist and an associate professor of
neurology and psychiatric medicine at the University of Virginia. “I
always looked up to him,” he says.
Reached at his Virginia office, Ted Burns seems to be caught offguard
with the compliment.
“I think what happened was Jeff just naturally got excited about
the neurosciences when he was in med school just like I got excited
about the neurosciences when I was in med school, and that led us
both to choosing neurology as our careers,” he says. “I think it was
just meant to happen.”
But Jeffrey Burns recalls how the decision to become a neurologist
wasn’t clear at first. While in high school he was always interested
in science but wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. His love of reading
and writing led him to obtain a bachelor’s degree in English and
Japanese. But it was science and pre-med that prevailed. And in
medical school, he decided on neurology.
“The brain, I think, is the most fascinating part of the human body,”
Burns says. Prompted by curriculum and interests, he found himself
drawn to behavior neurology and Alzheimer’s. “It is such a terrible
disease and a major problem on so many levels,” he says.
Burns also is attracted to research because he says there is so much
to discover. “I’m extremely fascinated that all of these conditions and
diseases are rooted in the brain,” he says.
Burns says he’s thrilled about the upcoming staff addition of
Russell H. Swerdlow, MD, formally an associate professor at the
University of Virginia Department of Neurology. Swerdlow is a
clinician and scientist and has his own basic science laboratory-based
program investigating potential causes of Alzheimer’s disease at a
cellular and molecular level.
“He’s also an excellent clinician and cares for patients with the
disease,” Burns says. “In fact, he was one of my mentors at the
University of Virginia when I trained as a resident. He’ll add a unique
dimension to the Alzheimer’s disease research program at KU.”
Burns breaks down his days and work week into sections to
accommodate his various responsibilities. At home in the evenings, he
does some of his reading and writing, and he makes time to put kids to
bed. He and his wife Jennifer welcomed their seventh child in June.
When not reading work-related materials, Burns says he enjoys
reading literature, history and current events. Also, he likes to run. He
has participated in six marathons and is planning his seventh this fall.
Ted Burns says he’s proud of his younger brother, calling him a
“thoughtful, caring, kind, dedicated young man.”
“He’s focused and hard-working, yet he’s very laid back and fun to be
around,” Burns says. “There’s no doubt he’s an exceptional physician
and a terrific researcher. He’s already accomplished a great deal at KU
Medical Center, and it’ll be fun to watch his career unfold, as I know
he’ll have so much success.” +