Schaffer named Minnich professor

Jean E. Schaffer, M.D., has been named the Virginia Minnich Distinguished Professor in Medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

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

The professorship has been established in honor of Minnich, who was the first person to achieve the rank of professor at Washington University without having either a medical or doctorate degree. Minnich joined the hematology division in 1938 and subsequently spent her entire professional career with Washington University, achieving the rank of full professor in 1974 and professor emeritus in 1978. She retired in 1984 and died in 1996.

Minnich’s diverse research interests included iron metabolism, vitamins, platelets, abnormal hemoglobins, thalassemia and carcinogens. Her work led to the discovery of hemoglobin E — a variant form of hemoglobin found in some people of Asian decent — and the elucidation of the glutathione synthesis pathway, which produces an antioxidant that protects cells.

“Through her persistence and ingenuity, Virginia Minnich exemplified the spirit of scientific inquiry,” says Wrighton. “The Minnich professorship will support innovative research with the potential to impact medical treatment. Its first recipient, Jean Schaffer, conducts research on the nature of cardiovascular disorders brought on by diabetes and obesity, which are increasing in our society.”

Schaffer’s research is aimed at understanding the cellular mechanisms that contribute to heart disease in people who are obese or diabetic. Evidence is emerging that these individuals may accumulate fats in tissues such as heart muscle or blood vessel walls and that this results in cellular dysfunction and cell death and contributes to organ dysfunction, a process known as lipotoxicity.

“This professorship also allows us to recognize Dr. Schaffer’s outstanding work, including her research into the molecular and genetic underpinnings of cardiovascular disease in people with metabolic disorders,” Shapiro said. “It is through research like hers that we will begin to fully understand and find more effective treatments for this significant health problem.”

Schaffer’s work helps explain why diabetes increases the risk of heart failure even in the absence of heart valve abnormalities, high blood pressure or significant coronary artery disease. Diabetes and obesity are accompanied by high levels of fats in the blood and insulin resistance that ultimately contribute to fat accumulation in heart muscle cells. Schaffer has provided crucial evidence that these fats can lead to heart failure, and her groundbreaking studies have identified key mechanisms through which these fats cause damage in the heart. Her long-term research goals are to develop biomarkers and non-invasive methods for diagnosing the earliest structural and functional abnormalities in diabetic cardiomyopathy and for guiding therapy that may be applied to population-based practice.

“I am deeply honored to be selected as the first Virginia Minnich Distinguished Chair in Medicine,” Schaffer says. “Minnich was a pioneer who made important contributions to our understanding of the pathophysiology of disease and to the education of the next generation of physician scientists.”

In 1982, Schaffer graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University with a degree in biochemistry and earned her medical degree cum laude from Harvard Medical School in 1986. She went on to a residency at Brigham & Women’s Hospital and cardiology training at Beth Israel Hospital. She then carried out postdoctoral training in cell biology with Harvey Lodish, Ph.D., at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research.

Schaffer joined the faculty of Washington University School of Medicine in 1995 as assistant professor of medicine and of molecular biology and pharmacology. She was promoted to associate professor in 2003 and full professor in 2007.

Schaffer directs the Interdisciplinary Research Center for the Study of Diabetic Cardiovascular Disease, a component of BioMed 21, the University’s research initiative to rapidly translate basic research findings into advances in medical treatment. She is also associate director of the Medical Scientist Training Program, which allows students to earn combined medical and doctoral degrees. Schaffer is an attending physician in the Cardiac Diagnostic Laboratory at the School of Medicine and a physician at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

In 1993, Schaffer received the American Heart Association’s Louis N. Katz Basic Science Research Prize, and in 1995, she was awarded the Heinrich Wieland Prize for lipid research. She received the Burroughs Wellcome Clinical Scientist Award in Translational Research in 2006.

Washington University School of Medicine’s 2,100 employed and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient care institutions in the nation, currently ranked fourth in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.