July 21, 2006

Alastair Wood’s new quest to aid drug development

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Leaving Vanderbilt after nearly 30 years, Alastair J.J. Wood, M.B., Ch.B., will continue his work to develop a more rational drug development process for the nation.
Photo by Dana Johnson

Alastair Wood’s new quest to aid drug development

Alastair J.J. Wood, M.B., Ch.B., and his wife, Margaret Wood, M.D., share a laugh with Tom Collins, one of his patients, during Tuesday’s reception honoring Wood’s career at Vanderbilt.
Photo by Dana Johnson

Alastair J.J. Wood, M.B., Ch.B., and his wife, Margaret Wood, M.D., share a laugh with Tom Collins, one of his patients, during Tuesday’s reception honoring Wood’s career at Vanderbilt.
Photo by Dana Johnson

Alastair J.J. Wood, M.B., Ch.B., has been a central figure in thrusting Vanderbilt’s Clinical Pharmacology Division into the international spotlight during the past 30 years.

Next month, Wood, 59, will begin a new career — as a managing director of a biopharmaceutical investment firm in New York City.

Wood, professor of Medicine, emeritus, worries that the risk and high costs of drug development discourage companies from investing in new medications.

“I wanted to try to change that, and develop a more rational drug development process,” he said Tuesday.

This fall Wood will join the management team of Symphony Capital LLC, which has $315 million in private equity capital to invest in the development of specific drugs.

“The fundamental problem (in drug development) is often not the science but the intersection between the science and money,” Wood explained. Pharmaceutical companies, for example, may rush into human tests of a new drug even before the most effective dose has been determined because continued funding is dependent on the start of clinical trials.

Symphony Capital's approach is different. It purchases the intellectual rights to specific drugs, funding development through clinical trials. The pharmaceutical companies retain the right to buy the drugs back later.

While reform of the nation's drug approval process also is needed, “the key thing is, can you demonstrate that the drug works?” Wood said. “If you don't get past that, regulations really don't matter very much.”

Wood said a “huge motivation” for his career change was the opportunity to be closer to his wife, Margaret Wood, M.D., a former professor of Anesthesiology at Vanderbilt who in 1996 was named chair of the department of Anesthesiology at Columbia University.

For the past 10 years, he has flown back and forth between Nashville and New York nearly every weekend.

Wood said his greatest personal achievement at Vanderbilt was “the number of fellows I've trained, and how they've gone on to take up leadership roles in major institutions.”

He also mentioned the medical center's “institutional achievement … the way we've managed to build a multi-investigator science and multi-specialty investigations … the willingness of people to cooperate.”

“It goes two ways,” he said. “You hopefully contributed to making it happen but in addition you participated in the happening of it.”

About Alastair Wood

Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, Alastair James Johnston Wood earned his Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (M.B., Ch.B.) degree from St. Andrew's University and Dundee Medical School in Scotland.

After postgraduate training and serving as a lecturer and research fellow at Dundee University, Wood came to Vanderbilt in 1976 as a research fellow in Clinical Pharmacology.

He was appointed assistant professor of Medicine and Pharmacology two years later, and quickly made his mark in the field of drug metabolism — understanding why patients respond differently to medications.

During the past 30 years, Wood has written or coauthored more than 300 scientific papers and won numerous honors. He has been a member of and chaired National Institutes of Health study sections, served on the editorial boards of four major journals, and between 1992 and 2004 was drug therapy editor of The New England Journal of Medicine.

A candidate for the FDA commissioner's post in 2001, Wood served as a member of the FDA's Cardiovascular and Renal Advisory committee and until last month chaired the agency's Nonprescription Drug Advisory committee.

Last year he chaired the advisory committee that reviewed the safety of COX-2 inhibitors.

In 2000, Wood was appointed assistant vice chancellor for Research at Vanderbilt. Four years later he was named associate dean for external affairs, “a new position we created to take advantage of Alastair's experiences working with the FDA and The New England Journal of Medicine,” said Steven Gabbe, M.D., dean of the School of Medicine.

“He proved to be a highly effective spokesperson for the school, and helped inform people around the world about the important work being done at Vanderbilt,” Gabbe said.

What others say

Jeffrey Balser, M.D., Ph.D., associate vice chancellor for Research — “Alastair is an articulate national spokesman and thought leader on contemporary issues in drug development. Through his leadership, he has substantially enriched Vanderbilt's reputation as the benchmark institution for clinical pharmacology.”

Gordon Bernard, M.D., director, Division of Allergy, Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, assistant vice chancellor for Research — “Alastair has served Vanderbilt clinical research as a tremendous role model. He is recognized internationally for the high quality and integrity of his clinical research.”

Nancy Brown, M.D., Robert H. Williams Professor of Medicine, professor of Pharmacology, associate dean for Clinical and Translational Scientist Development — “As Assistant Vice Chancellor for Clinical Research, Alastair streamlined and rationalized the Vanderbilt infrastructure for clinical research before the need for such a centralized infrastructure was articulated nationally. He brought common sense to this task and to his national leadership in drug development.

“On a personal note, Alastair has always been the person I could go to for advice, whether about a research question or a professional decision.”

Janice Fruci, Wood's former senior executive secretary who now works for Nancy Brown, M.D. — “Whether writing a 'sounding board' piece (for The New England Journal of Medicine) or being a sounding board to the White House, friends or colleagues, the unwavering traits of honesty, integrity, clear judgment and generosity are always present.”

Lee Limbird, Ph.D., former associate vice chancellor for Research at Vanderbilt, vice president for Research, Meharry Medical College — “He understood the intrinsic importance of clinical research from the perspective of the research itself and the new knowledge, but also from the perspective of … physicians who are listening at the same time they're asking questions. (That) makes for a better physician, and it makes for optimally individualized care.”

Jason Morrow, M.D., director, Division of Clinical Pharmacology — “He is a consummate physician/scientist who has been a leader in Clinical Pharmacology for the past three decades. Few scientists have served the discipline and Vanderbilt to the extent that Alastair has.”

Eric Neilson, M.D., Hugh Jackson Morgan Professor and chair of Medicine — “Alastair is the quintessential academician. He is rigorous, kind, thoughtful in his criticism of the science in medicine, and positive in his suggestions for improvement.

“As a scholar, he is recognized throughout the world as a true gentleman of science. Those of us who know him well surely will miss his wry wit and enthusiasm for academic life. Faculty like this are irreplaceable.”