A New Basic Research Foundation

A New Basic Research Foundation

College welcomes chairs in three departments to guide continued growth

Story by Kevin McKeough
Photos by Lloyd DeGrane

Basic science research provides the foundation of translational research, and the College of Medicine in Chicago recently has strengthened that foundation by welcoming new chairs in three of its five basic science departments.

These new leaders include Simon Alford, PhD, in the department of anatomy and cell biology, who assumed this role last Aug. 15; Susan Ross, PhD, in the department of microbiology and immunology, who arrived Dec. 1; and Jan Kitajewski, PhD, in the department of physiology and biophysics, who started Jan. 16.

Highly accomplished researchers in their own right, these new leaders will guide the growth of their respective departments’ research endeavors, which will be enhanced by the 30 new faculty members the college has committed to hiring in the coming years.

Larry Tobacman, MD, senior associate dean for research, and professor of medicine and physiology and biophysics, notes that the other two basic science departments—biochemistry and molecular genetics, and pharmacology—also will enjoy an influx of new faculty.

“Under Dean Azar, the College of Medicine is investing heavily in the expansion of research in our basic science departments, each of which has exciting research themes with great translational impact,” Tobacman says. “By coincidence, at the same time the college was preparing to make major investment in expanding its research portfolio, the three successful longstanding heads of these departments were stepping down. It makes for a moment of great transition and great promise.”

Dimitri Azar, MD, MBA, executive dean of the College of Medicine, intends for the new leadership and larger pool of faculty to result in research that is both leading-edge and relevant to clinical care.

“Our basic science departments are performing highly advanced, clinically relevant research that is increasing our understanding of the most intricate, minute ways the human body works,” Azar says. “The arrival of these exceptional new chairs and the many junior faculty that they’ll be recruiting will leverage these departments’ strengths, enabling them to provide important new knowledge that can enhance the wealth of clinical care provided at UI Health and across the state.”

The following profiles provide a look at these remarkable leaders and their plans for the future of their departments as they lead the transformation of basic science research at the College of Medicine.

In a sense, Simon Alford owes his career to the tsetse fly. Growing up in England, Alford became fascinated with biology due to his teacher’s stories about his work in Kenya hunting the fly, which spreads the devastating disease trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness).

Simon Alford

Simon Alford, previously the chair of the department of biological sciences in the University of Illinois at Chicago's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, also was instrumental in establishing the university's interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Neuroscience. He plans to build on the anatomy and cell biology department's existing strength in neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's disease.

While his undergraduate degree was in zoology, Alford pursued his doctorate at the University of Bristol, which had what he calls “an incredibly strong neuroscience group” that prompted his interest in the field, leading him to study motor control and then pursue a postdoctoral fellowship in synaptic signaling at the Nobel Institute of Neurophysiology.

Previously the chair of the department of biological sciences in the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Alford also was instrumental in establishing the university’s interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Neuroscience.

He plans to build on the department’s existing strength in neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease by adding research teams in three areas. One is Alford’s specialty, synoptic biology, including his own lab, which has received funding from the National Institutes of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the National Institutes of Mental Health and the National Science Foundation.

Alford also wants to develop a team in cellular imaging that will leverage what he describes as “this absolute explosion of cellular imaging technologies that have been applied to the brain.” In addition, he wants to supplement the work of Kamal Sharma, PhD, associate professor anatomy and cell biology, who studies systems processes of the brain, or as Alford describes it, “How groups of neurons mediate a function like seeing or moving.”

At the same time, Alford wants to expand the department’s translational research efforts, which already include collaborations with Chicago campus faculty in pharmacy, psychiatry and psychology. In May, he and his counterparts in neurology and psychiatry will hold a retreat with members of their respective departments.

“We’re going to try to push this harder and harder, get people together,” Alford says.

“A lot of science is basically serendipity,” Susan Ross says of the path that led her to become an expert in genetic approaches to understanding the interaction of viruses and their hosts. That path began while Ross was earning her doctorate in biochemical sciences from Princeton University, when her interest in studying cancer led her to a lab that examined viruses that cause cancer.

Susan Ross

Susan Ross, chair of microbiology and immunology, returned to the College of Medicine - where she taught biochemistry and genetics from 1983 to 1994 - after more than two decades at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine. She most recently had been professor and interim chair of microbiology at Penn.

That experience led her to conduct postdoctoral research, at the University of California, San Francisco, that used viruses as a model of how genes are regulated. She’s continued examining this area ever since. “I look at how viruses evolve to take advantage of their hosts, and how we have genes that keep viruses under control,” Ross says.

Her position is a sort of homecoming for Ross, who was on the faculty in the College of Medicine’s departments of biochemistry and genetics from 1983 to 1994. Since then, she’s been at the Perelman School of Medicine, at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where she most recently was professor and interim chair of microbiology.

Her decision to return to Illinois stemmed in part from Ross’ regard for what she calls “a very strong department.” She cites the microbiology faculty’s study of well-known viruses such as herpes, influenza, HIV and hepatitis, emerging viruses such as Ebola, and common bacterial pathogens such as listeria and salmonella. We also hope to recruit faculty working on viruses such as Zika that are emerging in new areas due to the spread of mosquitos in a changing climate and the persistent increase in global travel.

“And in immunology, we have a group of faculty that study the immune system at its most basic level—how the immune system develops, as well as how that goes wrong and we develop autoimmune diseases,” Ross says. “Some of that is triggered by microorganisms, so they’re not distinct areas.”

Ross also wants to develop strengths in microbiome research, which are the organisms in a specific environment. “What are the normal ways that bacteria live in our gut, live in our skin, and coexist with us, and what happens when that becomes perturbed and pathogens become harmful?” she asks.

She expects these endeavors will translate naturally into clinical research. “I always say that microbiologists have it really easy: ‘We work with bacteria or viruses that have implications for health,’” Ross says. “We know there are plenty of infectious agents, and most of them have some consequence for some population.”

The process of scientific discovery gives Jan Kitajewski joy. “The moment when you’re in a position to understand something that’s never been understood before is a very fortunate one to be in,” he says. “Discovery is a hugely rewarding experience.”

Jan Kitajewski

Jan Kitajewski, head of physiology and biophysics, spent more than two decades on the faculty of the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, where he held the Charlie and Marie Robertson Professorship of Obstetrics and Gynecology and also taught pathology.

After earning his PhD in molecular biology from Princeton University, Kitajewski completed a postdoctoral fellowship in molecular oncology working with Nobel Laureate Harold Varmus at the University of California, San Francisco. There, he developed an interest in signaling pathways involved in oncogenesis, specifically Wnt signaling.

Soon after starting as a junior faculty at Columbia University, he developed an interest in angiogenesis and how tumors build their own vascular system. He’s found this field to be a fertile ground for making the kind of discoveries that give him such satisfaction.

“At the simplest level, my own area of expertise is asking, ‘How do you build a blood vessel?’ That basic question can then be applied toward understanding a variety of organ systems, developmental processes and disease processes,” Kitajewski says.

He received National Institutes of Health funding for his studies for 21 continuous years while he was on the faculty of the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, where Kitajewski was a professor of both OB/GYN and clinical pathology and held the Charles and Marie Robertson Professorship of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Reflecting his expertise, Kitajewski has identified both vascular biology and tumor biology as promising areas for future research in the department. He also wants to harness advances in areas such as lipidomics, metabolmics and proteomics to drive studies of metabolic function in the human body and in disease.

Kitajewski sees potential to apply these lines of inquiry to translational research and specifically in understanding the therapeutic response to drug treatments. “There’s a lot of excellent science about developing the drugs themselves, but the ability to predict their effectiveness and side effects is more limited,” he says. “I envision fostering groups of physiology researchers that help understand that therapeutic response.”

Regenerative medicine offers another promising translational area for the department and for collaborations with other departments. “There’s a lot of exciting work we potentially can do to understand how damaged tissue or diseased tissue due to conditions like diabetes or cardiac dysfunction could be manipulated to restore health,” Kitajewski says. “It could help make it possible to rebuild organs de novo and for in vitro for drug screening purposes, or to repair the damage in diabetics and damaged hearts.”