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Recruitments bolster personalized medicine initiative

Mar. 14, 2013, 9:20 AM

VUMC’s personalized medicine effort is getting a major boost with the recruitment of two physician-scientists from Australia who will increase Vanderbilt’s strength in translational immunology, the translation of basic immunological discoveries into clinically useful tools.

Simon Mallal, MBBS

Simon Mallal, MBBS, and Elizabeth Phillips, M.D., will join the faculty on May 1 and July 1, respectively. They will maintain partial appointments at the research-intensive Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, where they are currently located.

The couple are best known for having discovered the association between a genetic test (HLA-B*5701) and a life-threatening drug allergy to the anti-retroviral HIV drug abacavir in 2002. It required a collaborative global effort over six years to move the test into routine use in primary care practice around the world — the equivalent of designing a new drug.

Elizabeth Phillips, M.D.

Mallal, whose research to develop a vaccine for HIV-AIDS has received funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, will be the founding director of a new Center for Translational Immunology and Infectious Diseases. This new center will be jointly sponsored by the Department of Medicine and the Department of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology. It will enhance programs in both microbial pathogenesis and immunology and will closely integrate with other centers and programs in both departments and within Vanderbilt to move scientific advances to diagnostic and therapeutic application in a timely manner.

Mallal will also serve as associate director for Immunogenetics within the newly established Vanderbilt Technologies for Advanced Genomics (VANTAGE) core.

Phillips will be director of Personalized Immunology within the Oates Institute for Experimental Therapeutics and will establish research in the area of personalized medicine of immunology and adverse drug reactions, work that will be enhanced by the establishment of a clinic specializing in patients with a history of hypersensitivity reactions.

“Their multi-center international trials are a model for how we identify the cause of a serious adverse drug event,” said Nancy Brown, M.D., Hugh J. Morgan Chair in Medicine. “Having them join our faculty increases our bandwidth in terms of translational immunology and also advances our goals in personalized medicine.”

Mallal said that there are many reasons that he and Phillips find Vanderbilt a perfect fit for their talents.

“Vanderbilt is the mecca of personalized medicine, the place that we have long come to look to for innovation and leadership from all corners of the world,” Mallal said, adding that none of it would be possible without the “amazingly open and collaborative nature” of Vanderbilt and the broad support and engagement of the community.

Phillips said they believe Vanderbilt is “the world leader when it comes to the integration of pharmacogenomics and personalized medicine,” noting the strength of the University’s BioVU DNA repository and PREDICT (Pharmacogenomic Resource for Enhanced Decisions in Care and Treatment).

“I am very excited about the move and how it fits with my own research and clinical area. We hope to soon have more sophisticated screening strategies to predict which drugs will negatively interact with the immune system to cause these types of severe reactions and exclude these drugs from development before their use in man.”

Sam Santoro, M.D., Ph.D., Dorothy Beryl and Theodore R. Austin Chair in Pathology, said that Mallal and Phillips are each superb scientists. “It is tremendously exciting to me to have them join us. They each work at the intersection of fundamental science and its translation into clinical application. They will add much to our institutional efforts in personalized medicine in the areas of hypersensitivity to drugs, genetic susceptibility to disease, host-pathogen interactions and autoimmune disorders.”

Dan Roden, M.D., assistant vice chancellor for Personalized Medicine and William Stokes Chair in Experimental Therapeutics, said that variation in the HLA system and in other genes involved in human immunity are predictors of severe drug reactions and of susceptibility to many human diseases.

“Bringing Liz and Simon here will be transformational both for scientific discovery as well as implementing that discovery in our health care system. For example, one of the major goals of the PREDICT program is to reduce severe side effects from drugs by avoiding certain medicines entirely in patients likely to have reactions.

“I anticipate that adding HLA information into PREDICT will improve drug safety at Vanderbilt in a way that no other medical center can execute. Liz’s plan for an adverse drug reaction clinic will add further to our clinical efforts in personalized medicine,” Roden said.

Mallal and Phillips have a large blended family of 10 children, six of whom are in college.

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