ASU announces appointment for Nobel laureate Hartwell

September 16, 2009

By hammersmith

While universities nationwide continue to slash budgets and leave faculty vacancies unfilled, Arizona State University has managed to add a true all-star to its roster in the biosciences: 2001 Nobel laureate Lee Hartwell. In June, after Dr. Hartwell retires from his current post as president of the Seattle-based Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, he will assume leadership of the new Center for Sustainable Health at the Biodesign Institute at ASU.

Meanwhile, the University of Arizona has its own good news on the faculty front. Provost Meredith Hay has announced that in alignment with UA’s Transformation process, $12 million will be redirected to hire top faculty in three areas, including $6 million for new faculty in translational medicine. The funds will be a particular boon to UA’s BIO5 Institute, said its director, Fernando Martinez.

New ASU center targets health outcomes

Dr. Hartwell entered the Arizona scene in October 2007, when he was named chair of the executive committee for the Partnership for Personalized Medicine, a collaboration among Biodesign, the Translational Genomics Research Institute, researchers from other Arizona institutions, and members of Dr. Hartwell’s team at the Hutchinson Center.

The new Center for Sustainable Health shares the Partnership’s overarching vision: improved health outcomes at lower cost. Toward that goal, the center will work on two fronts, developing new tools in molecular diagnostics and refining–and redefining–health metrics.

“With almost all diseases, we are really flying blind with knowing who is at risk and knowing which diseases people have,” Dr. Hartwell said in the Arizona Republic.

“In the current health care debate, higher quality and lower cost often are positioned as opposing weights on a scale, but Dr. Hartwell’s efforts are aimed at identifying the strategies and technologies that can simultaneously achieve both,” said Alan Nelson, Biodesign’s executive director.

Joining Dr. Hartwell as co-director of the center will be Michael Birt, currently executive director of the Pacific Health Summit, which facilitates dialogue and planning among Pacific Rim health-care researchers, industry leaders, and policymakers. Dr. Birt will begin his new role at ASU immediately, in advance of Dr. Hartwell’s arrival, managing start-up operations of the center.

Dr. Birt will also begin the center’s work to establish new metrics for health outcomes, bringing attention to environmental, educational, and socio-political aspects of and impacts on health.

“Health care metrics—particularly in the U.S.—have too long been focused on narrow aspects of cost and quality indicators that have led to an overemphasis on treatment rather than prevention, and a lack of effective tools for clinical decision making,” Dr. Hartwell said. “Dr. Birt and I will lead efforts to address these challenges, integrating all key stakeholders to create more effective solutions.”

Dr. Nelson said in the Republic that ASU will be raising $8 million to $10 million to support the new center. The Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust has already committed $2.5 million toward that goal.

Judy Mohraz, president and CEO of the Piper Trust, predicted that the new center will bring far greater attention to local health research.

“This is one more step to make Arizona and Phoenix a hotbed for breakthrough work that will have a global impact,” Dr. Mohraz said in the Republic. “The trustees of Piper Trust have placed the foundation’s biggest bet ever on Dr. Hartwell and his vision of the future of health care.”

The Piper Trust’s first big bet on Dr. Hartwell came with the establishment of the Partnership for Personalized Medicine in 2007. Piper committed $35 million, and the Flinn Foundation another $10 million, to make the Partnership operational.

Dr. Nelson applauded the Piper Trust’s generosity.

“These are tough economic times for everybody,” Nelson said in the Republic. “I think this is an opportunity that could not have happened without the philanthropic support.”

UA initiative aims to jumpstart hiring in key areas

For a full year, Provost Hay has been overseeing UA’s “Transformation Plan” to realign programs strategically, strengthening the university’s core areas of excellence even in a period of declining legislative appropriations. Dr. Hay’s announcement of $12 million to hire new faculty in two key disciplines is one of the most visible products of the realignment process.

“By hiring rising stars in a few critical areas, the idea is that we’ll multiply the success of these two groups,” said Leslie Tolbert, vice president for research, graduate studies and economic development. Dr. Tolbert will oversee administration of the funds.

In making new faculty a priority now, Dr. Tolbert said, UA should be to get a step ahead of its competitors around the country who are similarly scrounging for money in challenging financial circumstances.

“We’re trying to jumpstart faculty hires by providing the money for the hires now,” she explained.

Dr. Martinez, a physician and widely published asthma researcher who has led the BIO5 Institute since February, said that he anticipates the $6 million for new faculty in translational medicine will help the university strengthen its expertise in fields such as memory loss, Alzheimer’s disease, and cell imaging.

“What we want to bring to The University of Arizona are physician-scientists–physicians also trained in biological sciences, medical sciences–to be a bridge between basic science (and medicine) and transform findings into instruments used in disease treatment,” Martinez said. “A lot of advances have been made in understanding how disease occurs. What we have not been able to do as effectively is create the instruments to treat people.”

For more information:

Nobel winner to lead ASU health effort,” Arizona Republic, 09/08/2009

Nobel Prize winner Hartwell to lead major ASU health initiative,” ASU news release, 09/04/2009

UA plans $12M to hire top professors,” Arizona Daily Star, 09/03/2009

Transformation Initiatives to Support Environment, Translational Medicine,” UA news release, 09/02/2009