December 21, 2001

Ferris receives Culpeper Award

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Dr. Chris Ferris

Ferris receives Culpeper Award

Dr. Christopher D. Ferris, assistant professor of Medicine, has been named one of four academic physicians in the United States to receive a prestigious Charles E. Culpeper Scholarship in Medical Science, a program designed to support the career development of academic physicians.

The Charles E. Culpeper Medical Scholar award, part of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, a philanthropic organization, is given on behalf of carefully selected physicians of high potential achievement who are committed to careers in academic medicine. Consideration is given to a physician’s past performance and promise of future contributions to his or her specific area of research.

Ferris, who joined the faculty in 2000, was nominated by Vanderbilt for his work in the mechanisms responsible for iron transport out of cells. He and the three co-recipients were chosen from 27 candidates. Only one other Vanderbilt faculty member has won the award, Dr. Katherine T. Murray, associate professor of Medicine and Pharmacology. She received the scholarship in 1989.

Ferris’ research is especially important as it may lead to better treatments for serious, but common, iron storage diseases like hemochromatosis, the most common human genetic disease. Hemochromatosis results in excess iron deposits throughout the body, including the liver. Up to one in 200 people have the disease, which occurs more frequently in men and usually between those 40 and 60, although it is often undiagnosed. Now that the gene for the disease has been identified, much of Ferris’ work focuses on identifying genes that may protect people from acquiring this condition or those that play a role in protecting patients from accumulating iron.

“Personally, this award means a lot to me,” he said. “I have spent a great deal of time developing this research, and I’m very proud of our research program. This serves as external validation that what we’re doing is important and is appreciated by the academic community.

“For Vanderbilt, I hope it brings some recognition and prestige to the university. Since there are only four individuals chosen in a given year, it’s not very often that an individual university is represented in this award.”

Ferris and Vanderbilt will receive the 15th annual award, $100,000 per year, for the next three years. A significant portion of the award will support Ferris’ salary. The rest is to be used for support of research including personnel and travel costs. In return, Ferris will spend at least 75 percent of his time on this area of research.

Ferris joins Drs. David Matthew Althshuler of Harvard Medical School, Benhur Lee of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Gretchen L. Birbeck of Michigan State University, in receiving the award.

“Chris was one of the most heavily recruited gastroenterology faculty members in the country when we convinced him to come here,” said Dr. Raymond N. DuBois Jr., Mina Cobb Wallace Professor of Gastroenterology and Cancer Prevention. “We were able to lure him from Johns Hopkins which has been good for him and for us. He has an uncanny ability to design and carry out experiments that answer very basic problems underlying human disease. This is why he was chosen. I can think of no better candidate to receive the Culpeper Award.”

Dr. Eric G. Neilson, Hugh Jackson Morgan Professor and Chairman of the Department of Medicine, said the department of medicine is proud to have Ferris at Vanderbilt.

“Chris is one of the real leaders in this exciting field of iron metabolism related to heme oxygenases,” Neilson said. “The Culpeper Award is proper recognition for being on the cutting edge in an important field in biomedicine.”

Ferris said he began to focus on this area of research in 1997.

“A number of the most common liver diseases, including hemochromatosis, Hepatitis C and alcoholic liver disease, are much worse if the iron level in the liver is high,” Ferris said.

“It’s been a bit of mystery as to why this is, so I became fascinated in understanding how to lower the iron levels in liver cells as a result of that. It’s a very important area of health care,” he said.

“The overall reason it’s important to take care of these liver diseases is that ultimately they all cause cirrhosis of the liver. Currently the only treatment for cirrhosis is liver transplantation, a very expensive and dangerous treatment. Hemochromatosis is very common. Hepatitis C is a relatively new epidemic that is infecting millions of people worldwide. After 20 to 30 years of that chronic infection, people develop cirrhosis. Our hope is to find a way to modify that progression. My theory is that by lowering liver iron levels, we might be able to prevent them from progressing to cirrhosis.”

Ferris said that Vanderbilt is working toward linking its clinical faculty who see patients with liver diseases with basic scientists – a collaboration that will result in the rapid translation of laboratory research into the patient arena. DuBois hopes to eventually recruit additional researchers in this area and form a liver research center which will achieve both national and international recognition for VUMC.