Taking epidemiological approach to define, classify diseases

Alfonse T. Masi; Researcher of the Year

Alfonse Masi retired from the UIC College of Medicine at Peoria in November but he plans to continue to work with students and junior faculty on his research topics.

Clinical Sciences
Distinguished Researcher

Alfonse Masi may be retired, but he isn’t leaving research behind. He’s been sorting dozens of binders of data from decades of research so a new generation of researchers can continue his work.

“I want to reestablish my databases at home and with collaborators so I can continue to work with students and junior faculty,” he said.

Masi retired Nov. 28 as professor of medicine and epidemiology at the UIC College of Medicine at Peoria after 38 years of service.

As a doctoral epidemiologist, Masi studied a diverse array of diseases. He pioneered clinical-epidemiological research of rheumatic diseases.

Masi’s work explored diseases and medical symptoms in new and different ways, said Sara Rusch, Regional Dean in Peoria.

“Dr. Masi is an innovative thinker whose publications continue to significantly alter the foundations of clinical rheumatology,” she wrote in his nominating letter. “His epidemiologic orientation provides a framework for studying the causation of the disease.”

For example, his research on systemic sclerosis — an autoimmune disease also known as scleroderma — helped define and classify the disease compared to three other similar conditions. The classification criteria provided features that would distinguish the disease from other conditions.

Masi’s work also helped define fibromyalgia — a disorder characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain — from other painful disorders.

He formulated a novel biomechanical concept of increased lumbar muscle stiffness in Ankylosing Spondylitis — a form of arthritis that primarily affects the spine. That concept is now published and is being investigated with collaborators at Bradley University and in Europe.

Masi has 34 articles that have been cited more than 100 times — and six have been cited more than 1,000 times.

“Dr. Masi’s work in the epidemiology and causation of rheumatic disease has fundamentally altered how physicians think about these disease,” Rusch said. “The impact is evident not just in one article, one disease or one biochemical mechanism, but in consistent and ongoing innovative thinking about disease conditions.

Masi has mentored medical students at the college. “Many of these young scholars credit him with their success in their careers and with their lifelong interest in research,” Rusch said.

Masi was surprised to win the Researcher of the Year award.

“It was a mystery — how could I be different from all of the other productive and excellent investigators?” he said. “All I can say is that the effort I put in has been genuine and dedicated.”

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