January 29, 1999

Taking genetics from bench to bedside goal of new division

Taking genetics from bench to bedside goal of new division

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Dr. Alfred George Jr. (right), here working in the lab with research assistant Joseph Covington, directs VUMC's newly formed Division of Genetic Medicine. (Photo by Donna Jones Bailey)

Vanderbilt University Medical Center is creating a new division within the Department of Medicine to help position the institution as a world leader in the emerging discipline of Genetic Medicine.

Leading this effort is Dr. Alfred L. George Jr., recently named the Grant W. Liddle Associate Professor of Medicine and director of the Division of Genetic Medicine.

This discipline is concerned with taking the basic science of genetics and translating it into clinical applications. It's an effort that George said will begin to produce results sooner rather than later.

"In five years, I believe there will be great advances in bringing the power of genetics and the wealth of new information from the human genome project directly to the benefit of patients," George said.

George noted that susceptibility to developing common diseases like cancer, heart disease, obesity, and hypertension arises from variations in multiple genes. The identification of genetic variations that contribute to these disorders will make it possible to identify patients at risk for particular diseases and conditions.

One of the major goals of the new Genetic Medicine division is to develop the tools and the knowledge base to assess an individual¹s risk for a disease based on variations in different genes. George believes that within 10 years, genetic testing will be as routine as laboratory diagnostic tests are today.

With the development of these new tools, there will be a growing need for clinical genetics. The new division will establish a clinical genetics service for the adult Medical Service.

"We want to augment the existing genetic service in pediatrics to address genetic counseling and other diagnostic and intervention maneuvers in patients with complex genetic disorders," George said.

Research efforts will also focus on understanding the biology underlying the association of genetic variation with disease risk and on developing new therapies.

"Why are certain individuals with a particular genetic profile susceptible to cancer or to obesity? If you understand the biology, the next, and ultimately most important, goal is to design new therapeutic interventions to reduce the risk of a disease occurring in a susceptible individual," George said.

The new division will work closely with the Program in Human Genetics, directed by Jonathan Haines, Ph.D., associate professor of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics. The Program in Human Genetics combines several core laboratories aimed at fostering human genetics research.

"At Vanderbilt, we want to create a spectrum of research from very fundamental human genetics research to genetic medicine, with the ultimate goal of applying genetic knowledge and genetic tools to everyday medicine," George said. "The Division of Genetic Medicine will strive to catalyze achieving this goal."

George graduated from The College of Wooster in Ohio with a bachelor¹s degree in Chemistry with Honors in 1978. He received his medical degree in 1982 from the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. George completed his internship and residency in Internal Medicine at Vanderbilt, serving as chief resident at St. Thomas Hospital. He then completed a postdoctoral fellowship in Clinical Nephrology at the University of Pennsylvania.

He extended his research training as a visiting postdoctoral fellow at the Institut Suisse de Recherches Experimentales sur le Cancer, in Lausanne, Switzerland, and then as a research fellow in the department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of Pennsylvania. He joined the Vanderbilt faculty in 1992 as assistant professor of Medicine in the Division of Nephrology and advanced to associate professor of Medicine and Pharmacology in 1995.

George served as a co-chair of the Task Force on Genetics at Vanderbilt, and he currently serves as director of the Physician-Scientist Training Program in the Department of Medicine.

He is the recipient of awards including the Lucille P. Markey Scholar Award in Biomedical Science, a Clinical Investigator Award from the National Institutes of Health, and an Established Investigator Award from the American Heart Association. In 1998, he was elected to the American Society for Clinical Investigation.

George¹s research focuses on the structure, function, and molecular genetics of ion channels. His laboratory has characterized a number of disease-associated genetic mutations in these channels.