Monday, July 26, 2010

New Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar to establish GSU research center in inflammation and infectious diseases

A Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar will establish a Georgia State University center that will focus on discoveries in inflammation and infectious disease treatments.

Dr. Jian-Dong Li, M.D., Ph.D., who is currently with the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York, will lead the new Center for Inflammation, Immunity and Infection (CIII) at GSU, to be launched in January 2011 and housed in the new state-of-the-art Parker H. Petit Science Center.

"Georgia State University is excited to welcome Dr. Li and his laboratory to Atlanta," said Robin Morris, vice president for research at GSU. "He is a top researcher in the field of inflammatory diseases, and his arrival at GSU will not only enhance the university's research profile, but will also boost the state of Georgia as a hub of innovation and discovery in the biomedical field."

Li said he is looking forward to working at Georgia State and is grateful for the significant support and commitment by the Georgia Research Alliance.

"This is an excellent opportunity to join GSU at a time when the university is making an enormous effort to bring an already outstanding university to the next level in many areas, particularly in translational biomedical science," Li said.

"Dr. Li is an extraordinary scientist and entrepreneur," said Mike Cassidy, president of the Georgia Research Alliance.  "He adds to our cadre of GRA Eminent Scholars not only great insight in immunology and inflammatory diseases, but also a commitment to translating his discoveries into new treatments on which new companies can be built."

Li received his doctorate in medicine from Tsingtao University School of Medicine in China in 1983, and his Ph.D. from the biomedical sciences program of the University of California San Francisco in 1997. Prior to his time at the University of Rochester Medical Center, he served as a section chief and professor at the House Ear Institute of the University of Southern California from 1998 to 2005.

Li will also bring ROCK Pharmaceuticals, LLC, a company he co-founded, to Atlanta. The company's major focus is to develop novel anti-inflammatory therapeutic agents for treating a variety of inflammatory diseases.

The new CIII has a goal to better understand the molecular basis of inflammatory diseases so that novel therapeutic strategies can be further developed. Inflammation is one of the body's defense mechanisms in response to infection or injury. But when inflammation is uncontrolled, it causes diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease.

"We feel like we know inflammation. But in fact, we don't," Li said. "We understand relatively well how inflammation is initiated, but in many cases, we don't know how it's turned off."

Some of the drugs used to turn off inflammation - namely steroids - cause serious side effects, including the risk of infection and liver damage. The center's goal is help develop better therapeutics without significant adverse effects so that they can be used for long-term treatment of chronic inflammatory diseases.

The CIII will build upon Georgia State's existing strengths in drug discovery and diagnostics research, including the Center for Biotechnology and Drug Design, led by medicinal chemist and Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar Binghe Wang, and the Viral Immunology Center led by another Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar, Julia Hilliard.

President Mark Becker said that the synergies between Dr. Li's nascent center and the centers led  by Wang and Hilliard stand to elevate all three centers to levels not possible individually.

"It is exciting and rewarding to recruit a scientist of Dr. Li's caliber, particularly when the result will be three centers where 1+1+1 will amount to something much greater than 3!" Becker said.

Li said the center will also collaborate with researchers across the university and with other Atlanta entities like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Emory University.

"I've been impressed and excited by the excellent opportunities for collaboration among many departments and centers, such as chemistry, biology, the Molecular Basis of Disease Program, Neuroscience Institute, psychology as well as the Institute of Public Health," he said.

The CIII will engage in drug discovery in the traditional way of screening for effective chemical compounds, evaluating effectiveness in the laboratory, and then moving toward clinical trials. This process is quite lengthy, and many drugs fail because they are too toxic to use. But the center will also work to find new uses for existing drugs in what is called a drug repositioning strategy.

"We can screen for those drugs that are potentially very powerful anti-inflammatory agents, and because they have already been used for years and years, we don't need to worry as much about side effects and safety issues," Li said.

For example, Li and his lab have found that Vinpocetine, a neurological drug used to treat memory loss that has been on the market for more than 30 years in Europe, Japan and China, is a very potent anti-inflammatory agent.

The university will hire additional faculty members under GSU's Second Century Initiative, an ambitious faculty hiring initiative to recruit 100 more faculty members to the university over the next five years, to serve as part of the CIII.
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