December 13, 1996

High-tech gene therapy elective is nation’s first

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Jeffrey Fritz, Ph.D., teaches the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine's new elective course on the emerging technology of gene therapy, the first such course in the nation.

High-tech gene therapy elective is nation's first

The Vanderbilt University School of Medicine is the first medical school in the country to offer an elective course for medical students on the emerging technology of gene therapy.

The course, offered for the first time this year, is designed for first, second and third-year students. It will be offered each spring.

Jeffery D. Fritz, Ph.D., an instructor in the Department of Pharmacology, designed the course with the help of Dr. David Robertson, professor of Medicine and director of the Clinical Research Center, and Lee E. Limbird, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Pharmacology.

"Gene therapy offers a whole new dynamic for treating human disease," Fritz said. "It began as an attempt to treat inherited genetic disorders and has evolved to include alternative treatment paradigms in cancer and vaccination.

"Rather than just treating a disease using standard medical therapy, we have the potential to insert a gene which can correct for a lack of function or alter function in what we hope will be a controlled and beneficial manner. Gene therapy gives us a whole new approach to drug design, development and disease treatment. Basically, treatment is limited only by our imagination and technological capability."

Fritz said that the application of gene therapy has grown since its recognition in 1992, when there were fewer than 20 clinical trials being conducted worldwide, until now when there are more than 120 clinical trials involving hundreds of patients and drug design techniques.

Although other medical schools offer seminar series on gene therapy, VUSM is believed to be the only medical school in the country offering an entire course, Fritz said.

"To my knowledge there is no specific course anywhere else that addresses gene therapy, gene transfer principals, current limitations and future directions of research," Fritz said.

When the course is offered next spring, it will be in a slightly revised format than last spring's first offering, Fritz said.

Instead of being conducted in a traditional lecture format, where the instructor and guest speakers present information then spend a small amount of time on problem-based learning, general course material will be offered in a very non-traditional way – on the Internet.

"Previously, a lot of the lecture time had to be spent on giving general information. What we hope to do by getting this course on the Web is to allow students access to information 24 hours a day so they can get all the basic information about gene transfer and gene therapy technology prior to class. Then we can spend the time in class thinking about ethical issues, problem solving, and helping those interested students in developing clinical trials – letting them experience the current practice of gene therapy. I prefer to spend class time on this instead of having the students simply listening to what gene therapy is about.

"Previously, students would receive handouts and listen to an in-depth lecture and then, hopefully, if we had time, we would come back to the application of that material," Fritz said. "Now my hope is for students to get the necessary information ahead of time from the website so we can focus on the application of the material in class."

The Internet portion of the course was made possible, in part, by a grant from Vanderbilt University.

"Conceivably the class could be conducted in a paper-free fashion, all electronically," Fritz said.

Fritz said the Internet portion of the class is particularly valuable because of the ever changing nature of gene therapy.

"Since gene therapy is an emerging technology, the Web gives us immediate access to update materials. This also gives us the opportunity to let people know the exciting new things that are occurring nationally and internationally without having to rely on an every-other-semester lecture series to get that information to them."

Students who have graduated can also access the current information to update their knowledge of gene therapy.

"The opportunity is there to offer this as a continuing medical education credit," he said. "Gene therapy isn't as much of a basic scientific discipline as it is a technology, and since it's a technology, we need to devise new teaching methods so that everyone interested can be current. In an evolving technology, things can potentially change very rapidly."

The Website is continually updated. The site is on the Vanderbilt General Clinical Research Center Home Page and can be accessed at

On the first page of the section, students have access to Fritz's e-mail address so they can send messages or ask questions at any time. He can answer the questions via e-mail, in person, or by phone, so the student does not have to wait until class for an answer.

Fritz emphasized that the Internet factor of the class is not intended to replace student/instructor contact.

"The network gives us an alternate teaching tool," he said. "Students can have immediate access to basic information. But it will never replace student contact. Student contact will always remain the focus. The reason why the Website developed is so my student contact could be interactive and we could better apply all of the information we have learned. I see the Website as a way to increase and improve my interactive in-class time with students."