July 26, 2017

Vanderbilt mourns loss of pharmacologist H. Alex Brown

H. Alex Brown, Ph.D., the Bixler-Johnson-Mayes Professor in the Department of Pharmacology at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, died from cancer Tuesday, July 25, at his home. He was 56.

H. Alex Brown, Ph.D., the Bixler-Johnson-Mayes Professor in the Department of Pharmacology at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, died from cancer Tuesday, July 25, at his home. He was 56.

H. Alex Brown, Ph.D.

Dr. Brown was a leader in the field of lipidomics, the application of analytical chemistry, mass spectrometry and systems biology to lipid profiling in cells and tissues. He helped define the role that the enzyme phospholipase D plays in intracellular lipid signaling pathways involved in growth promotion and invasive cancers.

For the past year, Dr. Brown served as interim director of the Vanderbilt Institute of Chemical Biology (VICB), which supports, through research and education, the application of chemical technologies to important biological problems.

“Alex was one of the first recruits to the VICB and was an active member of the executive committee before becoming director,” said VICB co-founder and former director Lawrence Marnett, Ph.D., who was appointed dean of Basic Sciences in the School of Medicine last year.

“He was a talented and rigorous scientist who was one of the best collaborators I’ve ever had the privilege of working with,” Marnett said. “Most importantly, he was a great friend to many at Vanderbilt and we will miss him terribly.”

Dr. Brown received his Bachelor of Science degree with highest honors from Florida Institute of Technology, a Master’s Degree from Syracuse University and his Ph.D. degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1992.

At UNC he worked in the laboratory of T. Kendall Harden, Ph.D., in the Department of Pharmacology, where his lifelong interest in the complexities of cell signaling was born.
Dr. Brown pursued postdoctoral studies in Pharmacology at the University of Texas-Southwestern Medical Center with Paul Sternweis, Ph.D., and in 1996, joined the faculty of Cornell University with appointments in Pharmacology and Biochemistry, Molecular & Cell Biology.

It was at Cornell that Dr. Brown developed the field of computational lipidomics, which he then brought to Vanderbilt upon his appointment as professor of Pharmacology and Ingram Professor of Cancer Research in 2002.

Dr. Brown’s research program at Vanderbilt flourished. He established many research collaborations applying his lipidomic technology to the characterization of signaling pathways in various diseases including glioblastoma and non-alcoholic steatohepatitis.

He was a major contributor to multi-omic analysis of cell signaling through his participation in two “glue grants” sponsored by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences — the Alliance for Cellular Signaling and Lipid Maps.

In addition to his pioneering work on lipidomics, Dr. Brown maintained a long-term fascination with the role of phospholipase D in cell signaling.

He established a powerful collaboration with Craig Lindsley, Ph.D., a leader of Vanderbilt’s groundbreaking drug discovery program, which resulted in development of isoform-specific PLD1 and PLD2 inhibitors that have been widely used as probes and drug candidates.

Dr. Brown was a passionate and exacting scientist and mentor. He trained nine Ph.D. students and supervised 13 postdoctoral associates. He published more than 150 peer-reviewed research articles, served on the editorial boards and publication committees for numerous journals and organized multiple international conferences on lipid metabolism and signaling.

His contributions include serving as editor of a three-volume series on lipidomics and bioactive lipids for Methods in Enzymology and as co-editor with Dr. Marnett of a thematic issue on lipid biochemistry for Chemical Reviews in 2011.

Dr. Brown’s honors included the Sidney Kimmel Foundation for Cancer Research Scholar award in 1997 and in 2010 the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center High Impact Publications Award. In 2011 he and Dr. Lindsley received a Vanderbilt University Medical Center Academic Enterprise Faculty Award for Leadership of a Multi-Investigator Team.

Dr. Brown is survived by his wife, Renee Brown, Ph.D., program chair of the School of Physical Therapy at Belmont University, his son, Kyle, a chemistry graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, and his daughter, Lindsey, an architecture student at Syracuse University.

A memorial service for Dr. Brown will be held on Friday, July 28, at 4 p.m. at Saint Andrew Lutheran Church, 908 Murfreesboro Road, Franklin, Tennessee. Visitation will be at 3 p.m.