June 16, 2006

Vanderbilt mourns loss of Grant Wilkinson

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Grant Wilkinson, Ph.D.
Photo by Anne Rayner

Vanderbilt mourns loss of Grant Wilkinson

Grant R. Wilkinson, Ph.D., D.Sc., will be remembered for his many contributions to science and to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, his friends and colleagues said.

Dr. Wilkinson, professor of Pharmacology, emeritus, died Tuesday at his home in Nashville after a prolonged illness. He was 64.

“He was a truly gifted and dedicated scientist who really demonstrated his commitment to his science every day,” said long-time colleague Alastair J.J. Wood, M.D., professor of Medicine, emeritus. “He was a great friend and supporter of Vanderbilt. He'll be greatly missed by the whole field of Clinical Pharmacology.”

Dr. Wilkinson was widely known for his contributions to understanding why patients vary in their response to drugs. His research papers are among the most frequently cited by pharmacologists worldwide.

“Grant was a true scientist and totally committed to both his science and to Vanderbilt University,” said Jason Morrow, M.D., director of the Division of Clinical Pharmacology. “He pioneered many of the modern theories regarding drug metabolism that turned out to be truths.”

“A rigorous scientist and wonderful teacher and thinker,” added Dan Roden, M.D., director of the Oates Institute for Experimental Therapeutics. “By applying quantitative techniques to drug metabolism and elimination, he really advanced the field worldwide.”

A native of Derby, England, Dr. Wilkinson was well regarded for his collegiality, vision and mentoring skills.

“He was a good citizen of our School of Medicine,” said Peter Guengerich, Ph.D., director of the Center in Molecular Toxicology. “I was glad to be able to work with him in joint research efforts.”

“In many ways, Grant was the heart and soul of our Division at Vanderbilt,” added Richard Kim, M.D., professor of Medicine and Pharmacology.

Dr. Wilkinson earned his B.Sc. in Pharmacy with honors from the University of Manchester, and a Ph.D. in Pharmaceutical Chemistry from the University of London.

He was a National Institutes of Health postdoctoral research fellow in Pharmacology at the University of California, San Francisco, and taught at the University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy in Lexington before joining the Vanderbilt faculty in 1971.

For the bulk of his career, Dr. Wilkinson tried to understand why individual patients vary so much in their response to drugs. In the mid-1970s, he and his colleagues developed a quantitative model to explain how enzymes in the liver metabolize, or break down, a portion of orally ingested drugs before they can reach the bloodstream — known as the “first-pass phenomenon.”

The model enables researchers and pharmaceutical companies to predict how disease, other medications, alcohol and even dietary substances can affect a drug's pharmacokinetics — the way it is absorbed, distributed and metabolized.

Another factor is genetics. Dr. Wilkinson and his colleagues identified polymorphisms — or genetic differences — in a group of liver enzymes called cytochrome P450 that metabolize drugs.

In the early 1980s they found a genetic defect in one of these enzymes was associated with poor metabolism of an anti-convulsant drug, especially among people of Japanese ancestry. The discovery helped lead to an appreciation of racial and ethnic differences in drug metabolism.

More recently the researchers reported that P-glycoprotein, a transporter that pumps drugs out of cells, limits absorption and entry into the brain of a class of AIDS drugs called protease inhibitors.

In 2002, Dr. Wilkinson was awarded a D.Sc. degree by the University of Manchester in recognition of “published work of high distinction.” Last year he was honored at Vanderbilt with the establishment of a Distinguished Lectureship in Clinical Pharmacology in his name.

“Grant Wilkinson's seminal contributions to the field of pharmacokinetics are his living legacy,” said Heidi Hamm, Ph.D., chair of Pharmacology. “In the Department of Pharmacology, his reasoned voice was constantly for the highest quality science.”

Dr. Wilkinson is survived by his wife, Merrily; children, Grant Russell Wilkinson, Nicole Estelle Wilkinson, Tracey Allyson Wilkinson and Erika Lynne Wilkinson; stepchildren, Annalise Elena Iannelli and Kevin Michael Dunphy; two grandchildren and five step-grandchildren.

A memorial celebration of his life will be held Friday, July 7, at 3 p.m. at Vanderbilt's Benton Chapel.