December 5, 2003

Balser to hold associate vice chancellor for Research post

Featured Image

Dr. Jeffrey R. Balser

Balser to hold associate vice chancellor for Research post

Dr. Jeffrey R. Balser, a respected physician-scientist and chair of the department of Anesthesiology, has been named associate vice chancellor for Research. He will assume the post January 1, 2004.

Balser, 41, also professor of Anesthesiology and Pharmacology and holder of the James Tayloe Gwathmey Physician-Scientist Chair, will follow Lee E. Limbird, Ph.D., who will relinquish the position at the end of the year, having led the research enterprise since 1998.

“I’m very excited about this appointment, and see it as an opportunity to have an impact on the success of Vanderbilt’s research efforts in the next decade,” said Balser. “There’s so much excitement right now about our new building projects, about the programs that our new department chairs are putting in place, and about our remarkable multidisciplinary initiative — it’s a great time to become part of the team that’s thinking about the direction of research for the Medical Center.

“None of this would be possible without the strong infrastructure that Lee Limbird established working with assistant vice chancellors Alastair Wood and Mark Magnuson,” he added. “They’ve developed strong core resources and systems that support basic science and clinical investigation that we can all build on.”

“Jeff has some very big shoes to fill, but he is eminently qualified for this position,” said Dr. Steven G. Gabbe, dean of the School of Medicine. “Because he has come from basic science and seen that work converted to patient care, he really understands the needs of basic and clinical scientists.”

Balser graduated from Vanderbilt’s M.D./Ph.D. program in 1990, and it’s that experience that he credits with his strong foundation. “This was a place rich in role models — superb clinicians who were also thought leaders in basic science, tackling important research problems,” he said. “Through the tough times in my training, I was able to hold on to the understanding that it was possible to do both, and to blend the two in a way that would actually impact health care.”

After graduating, Balser spent nine years at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. He joined Vanderbilt’s Anesthesiology faculty in 1998, and was named professor and chair of that department in 2001. He also served as Associate Dean for Physician Scientist Development from the program’s inception in 1998 until earlier this year.

“When I assumed the role on behalf of research, I saw the need for fostering the careers of clinician investigators from their training through all the professional seasons of their lives,” said Limbird, who is also professor of Pharmacology. “Recruiting Jeff to Vanderbilt as Associate Dean for Physician Scientist Development was part of our strategy to address that need. Jeff has already demonstrated considerable leadership here at Vanderbilt, including chairing Anesthesiology, and his passion for research and discovery is palpable.”

“Jeff has combined basic research with a clinical perspective that is essential to solving future problems,” said Dr. Raymond N. DuBois, Jr., Mina Cobb Wallace Professor of Gastroenterology and Cancer Prevention. “He is also keenly aware of the need for ‘big science’ and how important interactions with industry are for institutional development. The biomedical research enterprise is in good hands with Jeff at the helm.”

Balser’s research laboratory studies the voltage-sensing proteins in the membranes of heart and nerve cells, among others. Known as voltage-gated ion channels, these proteins play critical roles in such bodily functions as maintaining heart rhythm and regulating nerve excitability and pain. Balser and his team also study how some medications interact adversely with ion channels, putting patients at risk for cardiac arrhythmias or neural toxicity. Preventing such interactions is critically important in managing patient care.

This kind of translational research — moving discoveries from laboratory bench to patient bedside — is the thrust of the new Road Map for Medical Research announced by the National Institutes of Health earlier this year. According to NIH director Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, the strategy is designed to “spark the changes that must be made to transform scientific knowledge into tangible benefits for people.”

“The Road Map re-enforces Vanderbilt’s commitment to go in the direction we were already heading, to strengthen the linkage between our extremely strong basic science programs and clinical applications,” said Balser.

The other key investment Vanderbilt has made, he said, is in sophisticated clinical information systems, such as StarChart and WizOrder, that allow researchers to mine patient records with a few keystrokes, rather than poring over paper records.

“Can you imagine pulling 5000 patient charts? It’s really the combination of these systems and our rich infrastructure in basic science that makes it possible for us to contemplate bringing research discoveries into the clinical realm and bringing the clinical realm back to basic science in ways that most institutions can’t,” he said. “It puts us in an extraordinary position.”

Balser also intends to focus on taking advantage of licensing and technology transfer opportunities in order to broaden financial support for research.

“It’s possible that our research enterprise will need to grow more rapidly than the NIH budget will grow,” he said. “I plan to work closely with Chris McKinney and Tom Noland in our Office of Technology Transfer and Enterprise Development to optimize our ability to translate discoveries and develop intellectual property.”

Balser believes that continued growth and expansion of the research enterprise will be driven primarily by the departmental chairs. “It will be their vision and energy and ingenuity that fuel our success,” he said. “I see my role as first, to help weave together that collective vision into something greater than the sum of the parts, and second, to insure that the infrastructure resources necessary for them to succeed are strengthened. Those are my two primary goals.”

“The thing that makes Jeff such a wonderful choice for this position is that he understands the rich interactions between structural biology, cellular function, and complex clinical phenotypes, and he values each element and what it takes to make those discoveries happen,” said Heidi E. Hamm, Ph.D., Earl W. Sutherland Jr. Professor and chair of Pharmacology. “He will be very effective at making sure teams of researchers are able to deploy their diverse talents to reach lofty goals, both clinical and basic.”

Balser will continue to serve as chair of Anesthesiology and will bring his on-the-ground experience as a clinical chairman to his new position, he said. “The challenge will be to keep all the balls in the air, but I’m blessed with very strong faculty and leadership in Anesthesiology and with the very strong infrastructure in the Office of Research that Lee Limbird has spent years putting into place. I’m really energized by this opportunity.”

“To be effective and successful in this important position one must have a keen understanding of excellent science; first-hand experience as a competitive, peer-reviewed, and successfully-funded scientist; and proven leadership and management skills,” said Dr. Harry R. Jacobson, vice chancellor for Health Affairs. “Dr. Balser fits the description perfectly.”