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Getting Personal

Recruitments bolster personalized medicine initiative

By Nancy Humphrey
August 2013

VUMC’s personalized medicine effort is getting a major boost with the recruitment of two physician-scientists from Australia who are increasing Vanderbilt’s strength in translational immunology, the translation of basic immunological discoveries into clinically useful tools.

Simon Mallal, MBBS, and Elizabeth Phillips, M.D., joined the faculty earlier this year. They maintain partial appointments at the research-intensive Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, where they were previously located.

The couple are best known for having discovered the association between a genetic test (HLA-B*5701) and a life-threatening drug allergy to the anti-retroviral HIV drug abacavir in 2002. It required a collaborative global effort over six years to move the test into routine use in primary care practice around the world—the equivalent of designing a new drug.

Mallal, whose research to develop a vaccine for HIV-AIDS has received funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is the founding director of a new Center for Translational Immunology and Infectious Diseases. This new center is jointly sponsored by the Department of Medicine and the Department of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology. It enhances programs in both microbial pathogenesis and immunology and closely integrates with other centers and programs in both departments and within Vanderbilt to move scientific advances to diagnostic and therapeutic application in a timely manner.

Mallal also serves as associate director for Immunogenetics within the newly established Vanderbilt Technologies for Advanced Genomics (VANTAGE) core.

Simon Mallal, MBBS

Simon Mallal, MBBS

Phillips is the director of Personalized Immunology within the Oates Institute for Experimental Therapeutics and will establish research in the area of personalized medicine of immunology and adverse drug reactions, work that will be enhanced by the establishment of a clinic specializing in patients with a history of hypersensitivity reactions.

“Their multi-center international trials are amodel for how we identify the cause of a serious adverse drug event,” said Nancy Brown, M.D., Hugh J. Morgan Professor of Medicine. “Having them join our faculty increases our bandwidth in terms of translational immunology and also advances our goals in personalized medicine.”

Mallal said there are many reasons that he and Phillips find Vanderbilt a perfect fit for their talents.

Elizabeth Phillips, M.D.

Elizabeth Phillips, M.D.

“Vanderbilt is the mecca of personalized medicine, the place that we have long come to look to for innovation and leadership from all corners of the world,” Mallal said, adding that none of it would be possible without the “amazingly open and collaborative nature” of Vanderbilt and the broad support and engagement of the community.

Phillips said they believe Vanderbilt is “the world leader when it comes to the integration of pharmacogenomics and personalized medicine,” noting the strength of the University’s BioVU DNA repository and PREDICT (Pharmacogenomic Resource for Enhanced Decisions in Care and Treatment).

“I am very excited about the move and how it fits with my own research and clinical area. We hope to soon have more sophisticated screening strategies to predict which drugs will negatively interact with the immune system to cause these types of severe reactions and exclude these drugs from development before their use in man.”

Vanderbilt’s personalized medicine program strives to be a leading international center in the transformation of medicine to focus on the individual. The mission includes support of discovery, translation and implementation science in the mechanisms of variable susceptibility to disease and drug responses to improve human health. This includes a focus on genomics as well as many other environmental and socio-cultural factors that drive susceptibility to disease and variable drug responses. 

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