Emerging areas

New centers address personalized medicine and aging

By Channing Suhl

Research technician Ira Wight, left, and PhD student Arielle Homayouni examine microscopic samples related to autophagy, a natural cell recycling process.

Three newly established research centers will strengthen the School of Medicine’s commitment to advancing two of the institution’s major research priorities: personalized medicine and aging. Investigators in these centers will undertake multidisciplinary work with implications for addressing a broad range of major health issues.

Personalized cardiovascular care

Despite years of advances in the treatment and prevention of cardiovascular disease, it remains the leading cause of death worldwide. Now, personalized medicine — an innovative approach based on individual genetics and biomarkers — has the potential to change the standard of care.

Alumnus Kim D. Kuehner, MBA ’77, has committed $15 million to establish and endow the Kim D. Kuehner Program for Personalized Cardiovascular Medicine in the School of Medicine. The program will fund competitive research grants within the school, providing a permanent source of funding for research aimed at improving the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of heart disease.

The complexities of cardiovascular diseases such as heart failure, atherosclerosis and cardiomyopathy make developing personalized medicine approaches challenging. At the center, researchers hope to elucidate the mechanisms behind each disease to enable development of therapies tailored for certain patient subgroups — ending the approach of treating the “average patient.” Ultimately, clinicians will address the cause of the disease rather than the presenting clinical symptoms.

“Individualized patient care strategies have transformed the care of patients with cancer,” said Douglas L. Mann, MD, the Tobias and Hortense Lewin Professor of Medicine and chief of the Cardiovascular Division. “Thanks to Kim Kuehner, investigators involved in cardiovascular disease at Washington University will now have the opportunity to transform the care of patients afflicted with heart disease.”

“These centers will support us in advancing shared priorities and making progress toward real, measurable outcomes.”

— David H. Perlmutter, MD

The Kuehner program comes at the perfect time, as the School of Medicine ushers in the next phase of its personalized medicine initiative.

“This new program will allow us to leverage our leadership in personalized medicine to develop tailored approaches to cardiovascular disease,” said David H. Perlmutter, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and the George and Carol Bauer Dean of the School of Medicine. “Mr. Kuehner’s exceptional generosity and deep interest in addressing a significant health challenge will benefit patients around the globe.”

Aging and age–dependent degenerative diseases

Sima Needleman and Philip Needleman, PhD, former chair of the Department of Pharmacology, have committed $15 million to establish the Sima and Philip Needleman Center for Autophagy Therapeutics and Research and the Philip and Sima Needleman Center for Neurometabolism and Axonal Therapeutics. The combined research efforts are expected to foster development of novel therapies for multiple diseases and impact neurodegenerative diseases of aging such as Alzheimer’s.

“Part of my vision for this school is to have a major impact on aging. It touches research underway in every department,” said Perlmutter. “These centers will support us in advancing shared priorities and making progress toward real, measurable outcomes.”

The Center for Autophagy Therapeutics and Research, led by Perlmutter, will focus its efforts on autophagy — the mechanism by which cells break down and recycle their contents. Recent studies show that exercise and caloric restriction promote autophagy, resulting in better health and increased longevity. But when the process becomes impaired, which is increasingly likely with age, abnormal cellular activity can lead to cancer, diabetes and neurological disorders.

The Center for Neurometabolism and Axonal Therapeutics will be led by Jeffrey Milbrandt, MD, PhD, James S. McDonnell Professor and head of the Department of Genetics, and Aaron DiAntonio, MD, PhD, Alan A. and Edith L. Wolff Professor of Developmental Biology. Building on recent breakthroughs in understanding how nerves degenerate, the center will explore the intersection of metabolism, inflammation and degeneration in the nervous system in order to develop novel therapies for neurological diseases.

Needleman began his career at the School of Medicine in 1964 as a postdoctoral fellow and later held several pivotal roles there. He spent 14 years at Monsanto, later Pharmacia LLC, heading pharmaceutical research and development. Building on research begun at Washington University, he led the development of the arthritis drug Celebrex.

Published in the Winter 2018/2019 issue