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Medical researcher credits Rugby High with helping to shape career

By Sue Sitter - | Oct 17, 2020

Dr. Caleb Skipper poses for a photo in North Dakota Medicine, the University of North Dakota’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences Fall 2020 magazine.

A 2005 Rugby High School graduate credits experiences from his hometown with shaping his work as a medical doctor and researcher.

Dr. Caleb Skipper and a team of University of Minnesota infectious disease researchers made news on the healthcare front last spring when they tested the effects of a controversial treatment for COVID-19.

Skipper said the idea to test hydroxychloroquine, a medication commonly used for malaria, on patients exposed to the novel coronavirus came to his team when they found themselves stranded in the United States and away from their work in Uganda.

“When coronavirus hit, I had come back to the US for a routine medical conference,” Skipper said. “That week was the week everything shut down and everything changed. But, since we were (in the United States), my team actually had some infectious disease researchers who were all here, and our stuff was in Uganda, which was shut down like most of the world.”

“We asked ourselves, ‘What can we contribute while we’re here in light of what’s going on?'” Skipper added.

Caleb Skipper’s senior photo appeared in Rugby High School’s 2005 yearbook.

“So, we studied hydroxychloroquine. You’ve probably heard of that. We were interested in it because as infectious disease doctors, that’s a drug traditionally used to treat malaria, and we had some familiarity with it,” Skipper said, noting he had been a part of a team in East Africa studying malaria.

“There were some papers that had come out where, when they looked at it, at least in a test tube, the hydroxycholorquine had efficacy against the SARS COV-2 virus (a name for the virus that causes the disease known as COVID-19),” Skipper said. “It was very early on, and there were no treatments yet, so we rallied together and decided that we were going to launch a randomized clinical trial to study the hydroxychloroquine to see if that could be an efficacious treatment. We actually ended up turning our trial into three independent trials, each asking a different question but all using hydroxychloroquine.”

“We did try to set up trials to basically remove bias as much as possible. That’s what good scientists should do. We did randomized, double-blinded placebo trials. We actually gave our patients a placebo or hydroxychloroquine. They were blinded (didn’t know what they were receiving), and we were blinded as well. That’s the most robust trial you can do to remove bias,” Skipper added.

“We found basically, in all three trials, looking at whether you can prevent getting the disease after you’d been exposed to someone with it, called post-exposure prophylaxis, and another arm was, looking at once someone had gotten the virus, if you gave it early to them in the course, if it could mitigate the disease and prevent them from needing to go to the hospital and ICU.”

Skipper said of the trials, “We found hydroxychloroquine was no better than a placebo in doing that. Our randomized clinical trials failed to find a benefit.”

“My specific team are now not doing any active COVID research,” Skipper said. “We’re back to doing HIV/AIDS research. That’s been restarted back in Uganda.”

Skipper, whose father, Dr. Ronald Skipper serves as a surgeon for Heart of America Medical Clinic, said medicine has always figured prominently in his life.

“It’s definitely an influence, for sure. Growing up in Rugby, we’d go to the grocery store and someone would come up to my dad and say, ‘Dr. Skipper, thank you so much for helping me.’ So, growing up, I saw my dad was well appreciated and respected in the community and made an impact on people. That was attractive to me,” Skipper said. “That was definitely an influence.”

An Ohio native, Skipper said, “I consider myself being from Rugby because I spent all my formative years there – fifth grade through high school.”

Skipper said his time in Rugby shaped his life “One hundred percent. Like I said, I feel like all my formation as a young man was in Rugby. So, between the different opportunities I had being involved in activities (had a benefit).”

“It’s funny,” he added. “In a small town, there may not be as much of a breadth of opportunities as there are in a larger city but in some ways those opportunities are more available. There are only so many of you. Even if you’re not good at sports, you can be on the teams. So, I have very fond memories of growing up in Rugby and going to school there, and the high school in particular.”

Rugby High’s 2005 yearbook features Skipper on several pages; he served on the student council and participated on the school’s Science Olympiad team.

“I remember Jan Hagen,” Skipper said. “She was one of the science teachers. She in particular was a really key figure in my interest in the sciences and ultimately going to medical school.”

“But I think there are a bunch of people in Rugby (who were influential),” Skipper added.

After graduating from RHS, Skipper studied at the University of North Dakota, moving to Ethiopia for a year after receiving his bachelor’s degree.

“But I think what really got me particularly into the infectious diseases piece was after college, I went to Ethiopia for a year, kind of out in the middle of nowhere, working on some malaria projects,” Skipper said.

“That’s what cemented my interest in medicine, but it kind of shifted my focus into infectious diseases,” he added.

Skipper said he’s returned to his work on HIV and AIDS in Africa now. However, he still thinks of his youth in Rugby often. “I feel like Rugby and my high school experience were very pro-family impactful on me becoming the man I am today,” he said.

Skipper said he still follows stories about the global COVID-19 pandemic, too.

“In Rugby, things seem pretty stable there,” he said, referring to the community’s health. “But in North Dakota as a whole, the coronavirus isn’t being kept well-controlled there. I think, in a small town, people sometimes have perspectives. What applies to a larger city doesn’t apply to a small town,” Skipper added. “In North Dakota, people are very independent, and in my opinion, I appreciate that independence. But at the same time, sometimes Mother Nature throws a curve ball bigger than politics or bigger than what you think the world should be.”

“I would encourage people to take COVID-19 seriously and protect their neighbors by wearing masks and doing small things,” he added. “I hope people basically look at this as something they have a part to play in as well. They can do the small things to help each other out.”

“It’s such a small inconvenience to potentially provide some benefit, you know?” Skipper added.

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