Wednesday, July 04, 2001

Blood researcher joining Children's

By Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        An acclaimed expert in childhood cancer is coming to Cincinnati to lead a multimillion-dollar research expansion at Children's Hospital Medical Center.

        The recruitment of Dr. David Williams, a blood disease expert from Indiana University, is the first step in a five-year effort to recruit 15 to 20 researchers to create a division of experimental hematology at Children's.

        Counting support staff, the division is expected to employ more than 100 people who will delve into the genetic roots of leukemia, hemophilia, sickle cell anemia and other blood-related maladies.

        Dr. Williams, who was a resident at Children's Hospital in the late '70s, is best known for his lab's work in discovering Interleukin-11, a drug that can treat blood cell damage from chemotherapy, and for his work in genetic therapy for children with immune-deficiency diseases.

        The recruitment of Dr. Williams is one of the biggest coups in years for the Children's Hospital Research Foundation, the research arm of Children's Hospital, said Dr. Thomas Boat, chairman of the hospital's department of pediatrics.

        “This is a huge investment in the area of childhood blood disorders and cancer,” Dr. Boat said. “This is the kind of commitment that will mean a cultural change for the institution.”

        In addition to serving as chairman of the hematology division, Dr. Williams will direct a new translational research institute, which seeks to speed up converting laboratory discoveries into human clinical trials of new treatments.

        Dr. Williams, 47, has been a researcher at Indiana University's Riley Hospital for Children since 1991. Previously, he held posts at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Harvard Medical School. Dr. Williams is a native of Terre Haute, Ind.

        Dr. Williams is an expert in blood diseases who directly holds four patents and indirectly holds two other patents, mostly related to genetic therapy methods for treating leukemia and immune system disorders.

        Interleukin-11 is now used in a drug called Neumega to treat low platelet counts after leukemia patients receive chemotherapy.

        His work in using retroviruses to carry genetic modifications into stem cells also was involved last year in France, where doctors reported reversing two cases of “bubble boy disease,” a fatal disease scientists call severe combined immunodeficiency disease.

        Dr. Williams said Tuesday that he started looking about a year and a half ago for a new challenge and was attracted by the ambitious research plans at Children's.

        “Children's Hospital Medical Center has a terrific research program,” Dr. Williams said. “There are only a few pediatric institutions in United States that have the science base, the patient base and the resources to do this kind of work.”

        In fact, research funding at Children's Hospital has jumped more than 30 percent in one year, from $48 million in fiscal 2000 (ended June 30) to about $64 million in fiscal 2001, Dr. Boat said. In fiscal 2002, the research budget is expected to grow another 23 percent.

        Those figures do not count $160 million recently pumped into construction at Children's Hospital. A new research wing, education and conference center and parking garage have recently been completed. A new clinical care tower at Burnet and Erkenbrecher is scheduled for completion in fall 2002.

        “This is a process that will play out over the next 10 to 20 years,” Dr. Boat said. “But I believe Children's Hospital will be one of, if not THE place where genetic therapies will be applied to a wide array of pediatric diseases.”

        Dr. Williams is expected to move to Cincinnati next month. He plans to have his lab completely moved by the end of the year.

Research developments at Children's

       • Since 1990, research space has tripled with lab additions built in 1991, 1996 and 2000.
       • Grants from the National Institutes of Health have increased from $8 million a year to more than $40 million.
       • Several top-flight researchers have recently come to Cincinnati, including:
       Dr. Chris Wylie, recruited last year to become chief of developmental biology. He has brought six other researchers to study the processes involved in forming tissues and organs as animals and people grow.
       Dr. Marsha Wills-Karp, recruited several months ago to lead a program in immunobiology, which explores how the body protects itself from viruses, bacteria and cancer.
       Dr. Phil Walson, recruited last June to run a new Office of Clinical Trials.
       Dr. Richard Lang, an expert in hearing development who is expected to join the hospital staff this summer.

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