Holtzman named head of neurology department

Alzheimer’s expert David M. Holtzman, M.D., has been named the Andrew B. and Gretchen P. Jones Professor of Neurology and head of the Department of Neurology. He will continue as the Charlotte and Paul Hagemann Professor of Neurology and as a professor of molecular biology and pharmacology.

“Washington University’s neurology faculty is renowned as one of the top clinical and research groups in the country,” said Larry J. Shapiro, M.D., executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine, who recently announced the appointment. “Dave has established himself as one of the department’s exemplary members and is held in the highest regard nationally.

“He is an excellent choice for this pivotal position, and I am confident that he will help continue our tradition of excellence in neurology and neuroscience.”

Former Dean and Executive Vice Chancellor William A. Peck, M.D., the Alan A. and Edith L. Wolff Distinguished Professor in Medicine, completed the search for a new department head just prior to his retirement from the deanship.

New head of neurology David M. Holtzman, M.D. (center), and graduate students John Cirrito (left) and John Fryer plan an experiment with mice that have Alzheimer's-type changes.
New head of neurology David M. Holtzman, M.D. (center), and graduate students John Cirrito (left) and John Fryer plan an experiment with mice that have Alzheimer’s-type changes.

Holtzman succeeds David B. Clifford, M.D., professor of neurology and the Melba and Forest Seay Professor of Clinical Neuro-pharmacology in Neurology, who served as head of the department during the search for a permanent replacement for Dennis W. Choi, M.D., Ph.D., now executive vice president of neurosciences at Merck Research Laboratories.

“Dave Holtzman has proven to be an outstanding clinician, researcher and educator, and therefore epitomizes the three missions of the School of Medicine,” Peck said. “He has the ideal combination of expertise and vision to lead this great department in the most exciting and rapidly evolving field of neuroscience inquiry and clinical care.”

As head of neurology, Holtzman hopes to bolster the department’s clinical services and to encourage the faculty’s thriving basic and clinical neurology research.

“One of the successful things about our department is that we have sections that collaborate extremely well to address particular topics, combining outstanding patient care and equally outstanding clinical and basic research,” Holtzman said. “I’d like to enable improvement within sections and ensure that each has sufficient resources to address each component of this three-tier approach.”

Holtzman’s research focuses on the underlying mechanisms that lead to Alzheimer’s disease in an effort to improve diagnosis and treatment. In addition to seeing patients at the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center and the Memory Diagnostic Center, Holtzman leads a research team working with animal models of Alzheimer’s.

The group has been instrumental in showing how dangerous amounts of a protein called amyloid-beta (Abeta) begin to accumulate in the brain many years before symptoms arise.

These basic science investigations have evolved over the years and soon may bridge the gap into the clinical arena. In collaboration with Eli Lilly and Co., Holtzman’s team identified a monoclonal antibody called m266, which results in Abeta clearance out of the brain and into the blood in mice.

In 2002, the team published the successful use of m266 to identify Alzheimer’s-type changes in living mice, making it the first proposed blood test to diagnose the disease before clinical symptoms arise. The use of m266 to break down brain plaques also may help treat the disease. The group is also focused on how a particular variant of the gene ApoE appears to act as a risk factor for Alzheimer’s.

Holtzman also investigates the opposite end of the lifespan by focusing on brain damage before, during or immediately after birth. By studying the mechanisms of cell death during aging and in perinatal life, Holtzman’s research has improved the understanding of nervous system development and degeneration.

“It’s exciting to be part of a department at the forefront of both clinical and basic science research,” Holtzman said. “I think we’re going to see an increased amount of translational research in the coming years, with laboratory findings being applied to clinical trials and, ultimately, to patient care.”

Holtzman earned a bachelor’s degree in 1983 and a medical degree in 1985 from Northwestern University. He joined WUSTL in 1994 in the Department of Neurology and the Center for the Study of Nervous System Injury.

This year he has received the prestigious Potamkin Prize for Research in Picks, Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders and the Promising Work Award from the MetLife Foundation.

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