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School of Medicine Virginia Commonwealth University VCU Medical Center
School of Medicine profiles

October 2, 2009

James Bennett, M.D., Ph.D.

bennett.jpgA fortunate confluence of events has brought renowned neurologist Jim Bennett onto the MCV Campus as founding director the Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Multidisciplinary Research and Clinical Center. Bennett hopes to bring about a confluence of a different sort at the Center, aligning basic scientist and clinical researchers to put novel ideas to the test and bring new therapies to patients.

The buzzword is translational research and the idea, says Bennett, is “to take discoveries in molecular cell science of disease and turn them into things that will help people – either drugs or devices.” However, creating a research structure that takes ideas from the laboratory bench to the bedside is easier said than done.

Part of the challenge is bringing together people who work on different portions of the long path from discovery to development. In Bennett’s words: “deconstructing academic silos.” Another part is keeping multiple endpoints in play. “Society wants two things from people like me,” Bennett says. “First is state-of-the-art clinical treatment and diagnosis for the disease. Also, we want to alter the trajectory of Parkinson’s disease.”

One experimental therapy that Bennett has nurtured is a neuroprotective agent called R(+)pramipexole. The novel therapy has been licensed to a small company and is currently in clinical trials for another neurodegenerative disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s) disease. Bennett is investigating whether the compound will be helpful in Parkinson’s disease.

He has been physician-scientist his whole career, spending 25 years on the faculty at the University of Virginia. Three things tempted him to come to Richmond. The first is the “Movers and Shakers,” an active group of local citizens whose lives have been affected by Parkinson’s disease and who have raised millions of dollars to support the new Parkinson’s Center. And in particular the leadership of Margaret and FitzGerald Bemiss, whose leadership gift of $1 million funded the Endowed Chair that Bennett holds.

The second is School of Medicine Dean Jerry Strauss, M.D., Ph.D., who is charged with making the school a biomedical powerhouse and whom Bennett sees not only as an ally, but as a like-minded researcher. The third and final reason Bennett made the 70-mile leap from Charlottesville was VCU itself, in which Bennett saw “a forward thinking vision of the future that everyone seemed to share.”

By Jill U. Adams, for the Dean’s Discovery Report.