June 12, 2014

Pharmacology reached new heights on Hamm’s watch

During her 13-year tenure as chair of Vanderbilt University’s Department of Pharmacology, Heidi Hamm, Ph.D., bolstered its international reputation, attracted 18 new faculty members and helped take it in new directions, such as drug discovery.

Heidi Hamm, Ph.D., led Vanderbilt’s Department of Pharmacology for 13 years.

by Elizabeth Conrad

During her 13-year tenure as chair of Vanderbilt University’s Department of Pharmacology, Heidi Hamm, Ph.D., bolstered its international reputation, attracted 18 new faculty members and helped take it in new directions, such as drug discovery.

“Vanderbilt’s Pharmacology Department has been excellent for many years and top-ranked among pharmacology departments nationwide,” said Hamm, the Aileen M. Lange and Annie Mary Lyle Professor of Cardiovascular Research, who was recruited from Northwestern University in 2000.

“It’s been a great privilege to build on this solid foundation (and) to recruit a number of excellent scientists who have enhanced its reputation even further,” she said. “The department has increased by every possible metric you could place on it.”

It is consistently ranked by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as one of the top two pharmacology departments in the country, along with the University of Pennsylvania.

“Dr. Hamm has provided excellent leadership in research and education for the department and the medical school, and has contributed to Vanderbilt’s reputation as a national leader in scientific discovery, “ said Susan Wente, Ph.D., associate vice chancellor for Research and senior associate dean for Biomedical Sciences. “Heidi’s dedication to our missions has been remarkable. We are in her debt for these accomplishments and wish her well in the next era of her career with increased academic focus.”

Now back in the lab full time, Hamm’s shoes have been filled on an interim basis by acting chair Joey Barnett, Ph.D., professor of Pharmacology and Medicine, while a search for her successor is conducted.

“We are appreciative of Dr. Hamm’s many contributions to our research and academic missions over the past 13 years,” said Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., vice chancellor for Health Affairs and dean of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “Under her leadership the Department of Pharmacology has continued to enhance its outstanding national and international reputation as a definitive leader in drug discovery and development. I look forward to Heidi’s continued presence as a senior member of our faculty and the valuable guidance she can provide our budding researchers as they develop their careers.

“I also want to express my gratitude to Dr. Barnett for serving as acting chair. We are grateful for his steady leadership during this period of transition,” Balser said.

One of her priorities as chair was to recruit specialists in structural biology and membrane protein crystallography. “If you think about understanding molecules and designing drugs to work on those molecules, structural biology is going to be key,” Hamm said.

Hamm also played a key role in developing Vanderbilt’s drug discovery program by recruiting scientists from the pharmaceutical industry. As a result, “the Pharmacology Department has become known as being the place for academic drug discovery, and a place where it actually works and works repeatedly,” she said.

“Without Heidi’s vision, I don’t think it could have been done,” said one of the first recruits, P. Jeffrey Conn, Ph.D., now Lee E. Limbird Professor of Pharmacology and director of the Vanderbilt Center for Neuroscience Drug Discovery (VCNDD).

“Dr. Hamm is a good judge of scientific talent and very supportive of them as well,” added Lawrence Marnett, Ph.D., Mary Geddes Stahlman Professor of Cancer Research and director of the Vanderbilt Institute of Chemical Biology, who has worked across the institution in recruiting drug discovery scientists.

Hamm is known internationally for her elegant dissection of G protein structure and receptor activation research and how these biological “switches” are “turned on” to mediate downstream effects.

She also discovered that G protein beta gamma subunits directly inhibit secretion by binding to the exocytotic machinery, an important discovery whose significance is still being investigated.

Her “bench-to-bedside” research on the role of protease activated receptors in hemostasis and thrombosis provided insights into why people with diabetes are more susceptible to heart disease, and her laboratory has generated potent antagonists of one of these receptors.

“While her scientific accomplishments are many, I think her recent work on both PAR4 inhibitors and on small molecule protein-protein inhibitors of the beta-gamma-SNARE complex will have a major impact on both the basic pharmacology of these targets and in translation to novel therapeutics,” said Craig Lindsley, Ph.D., William K. Warren, Jr. Professor of Medicine and VCNDD director of Medicinal Chemistry.

With about 200 scientific publications to her credit, Hamm’s discoveries and reputation led to continuous and significant grant funding, including her first NIH R01 individual investigator grant, received in her first year in a faculty position and which is still funded 28 years later.

She has served as president of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and on The National Academies Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century that produced the influential report, “Rising above the Gathering Storm.”

“I like that national arena where I can talk about the things I am interested in and science policy,” said Hamm, who is sought after as a keynote speaker nationally and internationally.

In addition, Hamm’s commitment to training is reflected in the National Research Council of the National Academies ranking Vanderbilt as one of the nation’s top training environments in pharmacology.

She has mentored 24 graduate students and 35 postdoctoral fellows and she has been actively involved in training over 200 more Ph.D. candidates. She started an advocacy group that encourages graduate students to talk to their senators and congressmen about the importance of investing in research.

Hamm credits her path in science to an “accident of fate.”

An adventurer in every aspect of her life, Hamm loves to travel. She majored in Foreign Languages in college, also speaks French and Spanish, and while studying in Italy met and married Emmanuele DiBenedetto, Ph.D., now Centennial Professor of Mathematics and professor of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics.

But when her U.S. medical school applications sent from Italy missed the deadlines, she and her husband moved to Texas to pursue doctoral degrees instead. “I never ever thought again about going to medical school because I loved the science,” she said.

Hamm’s continued dedication to her research is evident and her work is far from over. Her colleagues have no doubt that she’s up to the task.

“Heidi’s singular focus has always been on identifying the very best science,” said Randy Blakely, Ph.D., Allan D. Bass Professor of Pharmacology and director of the NIMH/Vanderbilt Silvio O. Conte Center for Neuroscience Research.