Welcome to the Division of Rheumatology

As Division Head, I am pleased to welcome you to this site and to provide an overview of the activities of the Division of Rheumatology in its three major domains of education, clinical care and research. In addition, I will highlight some of the additional administrative and programmatic advances that we have recently made.



Mike Holers

Perhaps most notable of recent news is that Dr. Sterling West, our outstanding clinician-educator who formerly served as the divisional fellowship director, recently received the singular American College of Rheumatology (ACR) Outstanding Rheumatology Program Director Award​. This award is in recognition of Sterling’s historic leadership not only of our own fellowship program but also his broad impact across the educational field. Following in Dr. West’s footsteps is Dr. Jason Kolfenbach, who is performing a stellar job as our Rheumatology Fellowship Training Program Director. Importantly, Dr. Kolfenbach has expanded the number of clinical and research fellows that the division can train, as well as continues to enrich and refine the components of the training program.  In recognition of his growing national stature, he serves on the prestigious ACR Committee on Training and Workforce and has recently received a Rheumatology Research Foundation Clinician Scholar Educator Award to develop new tools for training of fellows in telehealth and virtual medicine.

Additional advances in our educational activities have included the development under the leadership of Dr. Kevin Deane, Associate Division Head for Education, of an inpatient resident consult service rotation to accommodate individuals interested in learning more about the care of complex patients with life threatening problems. Another highlight in this area has been the role of Dr. Lisa Davis as an Internal Medicine Program Associate Director, a relationship that is strengthening our ties with residents and students interested in Rheumatology. These new activities build upon a long history of excellence in education led by Dr. Robert Janson, who has retired from his position at the Denver VAMC, and Drs. Joel Hirsh and Jen Stichman, which have focused on resident outpatient clinic rotations as well as teaching in the medical student Pathophysiology Course and overseeing medical student clinical rotations that are typically supported by a preceptor grant from the Rheumatology Research Foundation.  Further impact is made by Dr. Elena Weinstein, who has developed through her leadership of the divisional quality improvement program educational materials and projects for fellows to help teach them these increasingly important skills.

With regard to Rheumatology Fellows, the Division continues to recruit an outstanding cadre of clinical and research fellows, including MD/PhD fellows in the PSTP Program. A final notable highlight is the ability of the Division to support medical student research through its NIAMS T32 Training Grant.


With regard to clinical programs, these are overseen by Dr. Duane Pearson, who is Associate Division Head for Clinical Affairs and Director of the University of Colorado Hospital Rheumatology Clinic. Dr. Pearson has been leading expansion/re-organization on multiple fronts, including eConsults, improving patient access, ECHO telemedicine, outpatient clinic management, re-organization, piloting multi-specialty clinics with other faculty such as the Inflammatory Eye Disease Clinic, Rheumatology-Renal Clinic and Rheumatology-Dermatology Clinic, as well as working to develop new clinical care pathways within the ever-expanding University of Colorado Health system network.  Dr. Weinstein has taken on important roles in leading divisional Quality Improvement efforts as well as the newly appointed Director of the University of Colorado Hospital Outpatient Infusion Center.  Additional clinical activities include the expansion of a Lupus Clinic, led by Dr. JoAnn Zell along with Dr. Susan Boackle, and the test piloting of a rapid evaluation clinic to identify early disease for integration into clinical research and clinical trials efforts. In another new initiative, Dr. Melissa Griffith is building collaborative patient care modules with the UCH Center for Lung and Breathing to better care for patients with autoimmune and inflammatory lung disease.  Linda Rodamaker and Tara Kennedy continue to serve as nurse practitioners for our practice, playing essential roles in the integrated patient management system. Finally, as all are aware, UCH is undergoing a very substantial expansion to include clinic and hospital sites up and down the front range. The Division is committed to meeting the expanded clinical needs and also integrating patients as they are interested into the many ongoing research programs of the Division. 



With regard to research activities, these efforts are organized in the Division through the activities of Dr. Liron Caplan, Associate Division Head for Research. Notable recent successes include Dr. Deane, who is leading a first-in-kind rheumatoid arthritis (RA) clinical prevention trial designated StopRA. Efforts also under the SERA (Studies of the Etiology of Rheumatoid Arthritis) umbrella that are focused on deciphering the mechanisms that underlie the preclinical development of RA. In that research area, Dr. Kristen Demoruelle is making great progress by focusing on the role of mucosal inflammation in the lung and other sites in preclinical disease pathogenesis, and is leading new efforts to integrate Women’s Health into clinical and research programs. She has received an NIH K23, two U01 Prevention Center pilot grants, a recent NIH R01 and other grants, has several recent high profile publications, and was recently named a Department of Medicine Rising Star and an Outstanding Early Career Scholar. Another highly successful young research-intensive faculty member is Dr. Kristi Kuhn, who has likewise received an NIH K08 and R01 as well as multiple grants to support her work focused on understanding the link between the microbiome, mucosal inflammation and systemic autoimmune disease. Dr. Kuhn continues to receive funding to manage the CU Gnotobiotic Facility, which supports the efforts of many faculty members. In addition, Dr. Kuhn was named to the ACR Committee on Research, has NIH R01 funding as well as support from multiple foundations, and has been named as a recipient of the Department of Medicine Outstanding Early Career Scholar Program award as well as a CU system Boettcher Scholar. 

Several investigators in the Division (Dr. Michael Holers, as well as Drs. Deane and Demoruelle and the longstanding collaborator from the Colorado School of Public Health Dr. Jill Norris) are working under a larger SERA (Studies of the Etiology of Rheumatoid Arthritis) umbrella. SERA is a longstanding study focused on understanding the mechanisms by which rheumatoid arthritis begins in the preclinical period, with the goal of understanding pathogenesis and developing novel prevention strategies that can be applied in this very early period. 

Additionally, within the Division research undertaken by Dr. Boackle is focused through MERIT funding on understanding the mechanisms whereby immune tolerance is broken in patients who suffer from systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). Dr. Caplan is continuing his MERIT-funded work to improve medication adherence and outcomes in cardiovascular and rheumatic diseases, and separately, to advance our understanding of spondyloarthritis through the University of Colorado Program to Advance Spondyloarthritis Treatment (UC-PAST) and a strong collaboration with Dr. Kuhn. Additionally, Dr. Hirsh is continuing his studies to understand and mitigate cultural differences that interfere with optimal care of rheumatic disease patients. On another front, Dr. Christopher Striebich has been greatly expanding his clinical trials program to take advantage of expanding opportunities in this area in both industry as well as NIH. Additionally, Dr. Nirmal Banda and Dr. Liuda Kulik are PhD scientists who are making great research strides in understanding the pathogenesis of inflammatory arthritis and mechanisms of autoimmune renal injury, respectively. 

In addition to the longer standing research programs described above, a new and exciting collaborative effort with the Department of Orthopedics has been the development of an Interdisciplinary Joint Biology Program. This is being led by Dr. Larry Moreland, recently recruited from the University of Pittsburg to lead innovative studies of inflammatory and degenerative joint disease pathogenesis using new single cell and other technologies.

From an institution standpoint, the Division is also well positioned to utilize new tools and data in the area of the Personalized Medicine, including Health Data Compass, a central data acquisition method whereby patients contribute to research through provision of blood samples for biomarker studies and linkage to their clinical findings. 

Finally, as Division Head I have been fortunate to continue excellent grant support for basic and translational research programs, including a NIAMS R01, an NIAID U01 Prevention Center and U19 Autoimmunity Center of Excellence, and work with the NIAMS Accelerating Medicines Partnership (AMP) program. I have served as a member of the NIAMS Council, President of the International Complement Society, Chair of the ACR Division Director Special Committee and a member of the ACR Board of Directors as well as the Rheumatology Research Foundation (RRF) Board of Directors. I am currently Vice President of the Rheumatology Research Foundation and am greatly enjoying working with colleagues throughout the United States and indeed worldwide.



With regard to new programmatic efforts, Dr. Ashley Frazer-Abel has developed Exsera BioLabs into a CAP/CLIA laboratory that now incorporates autoantibody testing from the Rheumatology Clinical Laboratory (formerly, the ANA Lab) as well as encompasses a large number of complement clinical assays and other novel biomarkers. Exsera has many ongoing studies with the biotech/pharma industry as well as academic researchers, and as well is collaborating on new clinical care and research efforts.  

Underpinning all of these efforts are the administrative staff, led in an outstanding fashion by our Division of Rheumatology Administrator Ms. Carissa Figal. In particular, she has revolutionized business processes to allow the Division to maximize its productivity and impact. The Divisional clinical trials efforts are expanding substantially under her administrative management. She also oversees the activities of Ms. Lindsay McBride, Grants Manager and Ms. Becky Alberti-Powell, Rheumatology Education Coordinator and recent recipient of a CU Program Coordinator Council award of excellence. In aggregate, our outstanding administrative group has greatly facilitated the activities of the Rheumatology clinical and research track fellows in training as well as supports the many activities of our large, professional and highly effective research, clinical and educational staff.


The Denver Veterans Affairs Medical Center has undergone considerable expansion of clinical, educational, and research activities and is now physically based on the Anschutz Medical Campus, along with the School of Medicine and UC Health.  University-affiliated staff include Drs. Liron Caplan, (Rheumatology Section Head), Susan Boackle, and Kevin Deane.  Susan Mann, NP, provides substantial support for clinical activities.  The new VA health care and research facility houses all clinical services and a VA national registry for spondyloarthritis.  In addition, the VA benefits from the volunteer services of over twenty local private practice rheumatologists and offers veterans a regional spondyloarthritis clinic and an innovative tele-medicine clinic.

Denver Health​ (DH) continues to play a role in the clinical, education, and research missions of the division. In addition to the long-time efforts of Drs. Joel Hirsh (Division Chief), Dennis Boyle, Lisa Davis, Itziar Quinzanos, and Jennifer Stichman. The DH Rheumatology clinic has been recognized at Denver Health for its role expanding external referrals, its low wait time and for having the highest customer satisfaction ratings of any specialty clinic at DH. The DH faculty are actively engaged in funded research projects looking to improve the processes and outcomes of care for patients with limited health literacy. 

In conclusion, I hope that you enjoy your “tour” through the Division of Rheumatology site. Please contact us with any questions or suggestions at: 303-724-7605 or via e-mail at rheum.trainandeducate@ucdenver.edu​.




V. Michael Holers, MD

Scoville Professor and Head, Division of Rheumatology

University of Colorado School of Medicine