In 2014, Alfred George, Jr., MD, joined Feinberg as the chair and Magerstadt Professor of Pharmacology, as the department was formed by splitting the former department of Molecular Pharmacology and Biological Chemistry.
Since then, Feinberg’s Department of Pharmacology has nearly tripled its number of faculty and has more than quadrupled its external funding. In the 2019-2020 academic year, the department’s consistent growth helped the medical school secure $407 million in awards from the National Institute of Health (NIH), and in the last fiscal year, the Department of Pharmacology was ranked seventh among U.S. departments of pharmacology in NIH funding.
Like the department, the field of pharmacology has quickly evolved just in the last decade, according to George. These changes include a growing interest in protein-based biologic drugs (antibodies and recombinant proteins) and the emergence of nucleic acid therapeutics, most notably the recent U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved COVID-19 vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech.
Currently, more than half of the department’s faculty is focused on neuropharmacology research. Most recently, the department revised its research focus to emphasize the study of pharmacogenomics, how an individual’s genetic makeup impacts their response to drugs.
This shift drove recruitment of new faculty and the development of new research areas for the department, including partnering with the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center in recruiting faculty with an interest in cancer pharmacology, according to George.
“Our faculty are highly collaborative with other departments and centers, and this has led to the funding a several multi-investigator grants and new scientific breakthroughs,” said George, who is also the director of the Center for Pharmacogenomics.
For example, Minoli Perera, PharmD, PhD, associate professor of Pharmacology, who joined the department in July 2016, studies pharmacogenomics in African American populations and is the principal investigator of the NIH-funded African American Cardiovascular Pharmacogenetics Consortium (ACCOuNT) project, which aims to ensure that all people benefit equally from precision medicine, with a focus on disparities affecting African American communities.
Precision therapeutics, including the recognition of genetic factors that contribute to inter-individual differences in either drug effectiveness or toxicity, is also an emerging topic of interest in the field, according to George. The laboratory of Paul Burridge, PhD, assistant professor of Pharmacology, who also joined the department in 2016, recently published a study identifying the genetic mechanisms that may promote irreversible cardiac injury in patients given a commonly used chemotherapy drug called doxorubicin.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has restricted the recruitment of new faculty and graduate students to the department and forcing dry lab research to be done remotely, some faculty members shifted their research focus entirely to address the pandemic. These efforts include developing a COVID-19 antibody test and studying which exosomes may be biomarkers of COVID-19 infection and immune response, led by Huiping Liu, MD, PhD, associate professor of Pharmacology and of Medicine in the Division of Hematology and Oncology.
As for the future, George says the department aims to strengthen cancer pharmacology and pharmacogenomics research areas, and expand research efforts in addiction biology and emerging nucleic acid technologies for treating common and rare diseases, especially those of the nervous system such as childhood epilepsy.
“We are proud of our recent growth and accomplishments, but there are many new and exciting opportunities to build an even stronger department in the future,” George said.
Perera, Burridge and Liu are members of the Lurie Cancer Center.