Needleman professorship will guide clinical science

Philip Needleman, Ph.D., and his wife, Sima, have established the Philip and Sima K. Needleman Professorship at the School of Medicine. The professorship will support a faculty member holding a key leadership position within the new BioMed 21 initiative.

The announcement was made by Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton and Larry J. Shapiro, M.D., executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine.

“Philip and Sima Needleman have contributed greatly to the St. Louis community and to Washington University,” Wrighton said. “We are extremely grateful for their commitment to the future of medical research.”

Shapiro said, “We thank the Needlemans for this wonderful gift and are honored that their names will be associated with the School of Medicine in perpetuity. The chair will be held by an accomplished clinical investigator who will head our new Clinical Sciences Division.”

Philip Needleman chaired the School of Medicine’s Department of Pharmacology from 1976-1989 and was senior executive vice president, chief scientific officer and chairman of research and development at Pharmacia Corp. (formerly Monsanto/Searle) from 1989-2003.

As adjunct professor of molecular biology and pharmacology and as a member of the School of Medicine’s National Council, the University’s Board of Trustees and the Barnes-Jewish Hospital board, he maintains close ties with the University. He was elected Basic Science Teacher of the Year five times during his 22 years on the faculty.

Needleman conceived and developed CelebrexTM, a type of arthritis drug called a COX-2 inhibitor that treats the pain and inflammation of osteoarthritis and adult rheumatoid arthritis. As well as being an expert on inflammation, he is recognized worldwide for his research on organic nitrates, his work on blood pressure regulation and the discovery of atrial natriuretic factor, the molecule that conveys information from the heart to the kidneys.

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Needleman’s earliest studies focused on the enzymatic breakdown of organic nitrates, and he continued this work after moving to the Washington University School of Medicine in 1964. This early research revealed that nitroglycerin, which was taken by mouth for angina, is completely degraded by the liver before it can circulate around the body.

As a result, patients now place nitroglycerin under the tongue, allowing it to enter the bloodstream directly.

Metabolites of arachidonic acid then became a major focus of his work. He studied their roles in the kidney and heart and explored their contributions to inflammation and blood clotting. This led him to discover the first inhibitor of a platelet enzyme called thromboxan synthase.

He also studied arachidonic acid metabolites called prostaglandins, which perform a range of regulatory functions but are largely responsible for the pain of arthritis and other inflammatory conditions.

In 1989, Needleman’s experiments predicted that a key enzyme in prostaglandin synthesis called COX (cyclooxygenase) exists in two other forms. Other scientists cloned the second enzyme, confirming that COX-1 synthesizes the prostaglandins involved in inflammation and tissue injury.

That year, Needleman moved to Monsanto, where his group produced large amounts of COX-2 for study. The researchers then synthesized and tested the compound that became Celebrex.

By inhibiting COX-2 and not COX-1, Celebrex avoids the side effects associated with aspirin and other anti-inflammatory drugs. Celebrex is now used by more than 20 million arthritis sufferers and is the first drug therapy for the treatment of precancerous colon polyps.

Needleman was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1987 and to the academy’s Institute of Medicine in 1993. He received Washington University’s Distinguished Faculty Award on Founders Day in 1987, a Second Century Award in 1994 and an honorary degree in 2001.

Sima Needleman earned a master of social work degree from the George Warren Brown School of Social Work in 1974.

She was a medical social worker at Jewish Hospital (now Barnes-Jewish Hospital North) from 1976-1992. She served patients with obstetrical problems, and in 1983 she began providing counseling and social service support to patients in the hospital’s In Vitro Fertilization Clinic.

From 1992 until her retirement in 1999, she worked in private practice, serving patients with pregnancy-related problems.

A member of GWB’s National Council, Needleman served 10 years on the GWB Alumni Board, where she chaired numerous committees and served as president from 1993-95.

She also was a practicum instructor for GWB while at Jewish Hospital.

In 2001, she was awarded the School of Social Work’s President’s Award, which recognizes long-standing and distinguished commitment to the alumni association and exemplary work in bringing together alumni, faculty and students.

She and her husband are establishing a Sima K. Needleman endowed social work scholarship.

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