March 19, 2004

Pharmacology national leader among research citations

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Predicted structural model for the sodium channel C-terminal region, highlighting the EF-hand loop in yellow, with a blue calcium ion bound. The red amino acid (bottom center) is one that is mutated in long QT syndrome, which predisposes patients to life-threatening arrhythmias.

Pharmacology national leader among research citations

One measure of a university’s excellence is the frequency with which its faculty’s research findings are cited in the publications of other scientists. By that measure, Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Pharmacology Department ranks first among other universities in the country.

When compared to the entire research “universe,” including government institutes and pharmaceutical companies worldwide, Vanderbilt ranks 15th in the number of citations per paper in pharmacology and toxicology from 1993 to 2003, according to Thomson ISI, which compiles and analyzes citation data.

“The Vanderbilt Pharmacology Department publishes important papers, and has for a long time,” said department chair Heidi Hamm, Ph.D. “We have faculty who are doing important, groundbreaking work, (and publishing) original concepts and ideas.”

The citation figures were discussed in the March 1 issue of The Scientist. In an article titled “The Right Research Mix,” writer Stuart Blackman noted the “blurring of boundaries” between academe and industry when it comes to publishing significant research findings.

In past years, pharmaceutical companies emphasized patenting and developing their scientists’ discoveries over publishing their findings. Today, however, “if you do something really good in one of these companies, they’re going to publish it,” noted Michael Waterman, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Biochemistry at Vanderbilt. “It affects (the company’s) reputation.”

In addition, researchers who formerly would have spent their careers in one place, increasingly are moving back and forth between academia and industry.

“The closer we get between industry and academia, the better,” Waterman said. “Pharma doesn’t do much basic research. They depend a lot on places like Vanderbilt.”

Vanderbilt’s excellence has a lot to do with the leadership of its Pharmacology Department, going back to the 1950s.

“Allan Bass, Joel Hardman, Lee Limbird, Heidi Hamm – these are all powerful scientists,” he said of the former and current pharmacology chairs.

One of the keys to Vanderbilt’s success, Hamm says, is the proximity of the Pharmacology Department to the Division of Clinical Pharmacology, which was established in the Department of Medicine by John Oates, M.D., in 1963.

“John Oates revolutionized pharmacology by establishing the first major clinical pharmacology program in the country,” Waterman said. “It is sort of a marriage between pharmacology and clinical medicine.”

In addition, toxicology research at Vanderbilt has been very strong for 40 years, Waterman said. “Also we have had an emphasis on building up our facilities in terms of equipment, the tools we need,” added Frederick Guengerich, Ph.D., professor of Biochemistry and director of the Center in Molecular Toxicology.

Guengerich, who was the third most-cited scientist in pharmacology and toxicology during 1993 to 2003 according to Thomson ISI, says he has had a long and productive association with the pharmaceutical industry.

“It’s important to have a good relationship with industry,” he said. As an example, Guengerich and his group helped identify the molecular basis for fatal heart rhythm abnormalities associated with the antihistamine drug Seldane, which was later pulled from the market in 1988.

How to improve the give-and-take between academic scientists and those in industry continues to be a major discussion point at Vanderbilt.

“The idea is there can be novel concepts that pharma would not pursue because they are seen as unlikely or too risky, but that academia has the luxury to go deeply into and prove those concepts,” Hamm said. “That’s important both scientifically and in terms of drug discovery.”