The Linda Banov and Howard Stern DREAMS fund: Inspiring the next generation of dysphagia researchers

DREAMS Fund - Linda Stern - Dr. Nicole Rogus-Pulia and dysphagia research

A friendship forged decades ago that was based on entrepreneurialism and philanthropy is continuing to support research on dysphagia—the medical term for swallowing difficulties and disorders that plagues 1 in 25 adults in the United States and is correlated with advanced age and many neurological disorders.

Dysphagia research has been the life’s work of JoAnne Robbins, PhD, emeritus professor, Gastroenterology and Hepatology and the Department of Nutritional Sciences. Through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), which is the technology transfer entity for UW-Madison, Dr. Robbins was awarded several patents for inventions aimed at improving the lives of people living with dysphagia. As she sought to commercialize therapeutic devices and nutritional products tailored to people whose swallowing challenges negatively impact their life, she met Howard Stern, an MIT-trained chemical engineer and the co-founder, director and Chairman of E-Z-EM, a US manufacturer of contrast agents for gastrointestinal radiology such as barium formulations.

Howard Stern licensed from WARF the rights to the first patented invention of Dr. Robbins and her team in the University of Wisconsin/VA Swallowing Laboratory. He served as a key mentor to Dr. Robbins throughout her career until he passed away in 2005, when his wife of 40 years, Linda Stern, continued in the role of mentorship. As a mentor, Howard Stern was a champion of translational research in swallowing and dysphagia, emphasizing the importance of bench-to-bedside efforts and technology transfer from academic laboratories to industry partners to commercialize new technologies for the benefit of patients.

Linda Stern has continued to encourage Dr. Robbins' ongoing professional productivity and direction, and through the establishment of the Linda Banov and Howard Stern DREAMS Fund, the future of dysphagia research. "I'm happy that I have been able to begin the award process for the DREAMS fund. Dysphagia is a disease that more people need to be aware of and I am delighted to give my support and be an integral part of this initiative at my alma mater,” said Linda Stern.

In February, the inaugural DREAMS (Dysphagia REsearch and Education to IMprove Swallowing) fund pilot grant was awarded to Nicole Rogus-Pulia, PhD, CCC-SLP, assistant professor, Geriatrics and Gerontology for a proposal entitled, “The Impact of Probiotics on Oral Microbiota in Older Adults with Dysphagia at Risk for Pneumonia.” The work will investigate whether administering probiotics could serve as a preventive measure against aspiration-associated pneumonia in older adults who are experiencing swallowing challenges. For this interdisciplinary, translational project, Nasia Safdar, MD, PhD, associate professor, Infectious Disease and vice chair for research, is serving as a collaborator as an expert in infectious diseases and probiotic interventions.

“I am so grateful to Linda Stern and to the memory of her late husband, Howard , for their vision and trust in the future of dysphagia research. Swallowing disorders cause tremendous suffering and social isolation in some of our most vulnerable patient populations, and the ability to move forward with this pilot study is very encouraging. Following in Dr. Robbins’ footsteps, our team hopes to make a difference in the lives of people with dysphagia,” said Dr. Rogus-Pulia.



  • "Preserving the Joy of Eating: Rethinking Dysphagia Management in Dementia Care," Department of Medicine Grand Rounds by Dr. Nicole Rogus-Pulia, December 8, 2017 

Photo caption: Philanthropist Linda Stern visits the Department of Medicine on February 15, 2018. From left to right: Dr. Nasia Safdar, Dr. JoAnne Robbins, Linda Stern, Dr. Nicole Rogus-Pulia, Dr. Richard Page, Pete Schmeling. Photo credit: Clint Thayer/Department of Medicine