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Mardis, Wilson Named to Endowed Professorships

By Caroline Arbanas

Elaine Mardis, PhD, center, the inaugural Robert E. and Louis F. Dunn Distinguished Professor of Medicine, is pictured with Larry Shapiro, MD, executive vice chancellor and dean of the School of Medicine, left, and Chancellor Mark Wrighton. Photo by Mark Beaven.

April 7, 2014 – Elaine Mardis, PhD, and Richard Wilson, PhD, both renowned for discoveries in the field of genomics, have been named to endowed professorships at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

Mardis has been named the inaugural Robert E. and Louise F. Dunn Distinguished Professor of Medicine, and Wilson has been named the inaugural Alan A. and Edith L. Wolff Distinguished Professor of Medicine.

They were installed by Washington University Chancellor Mark Wrighton and Larry Shapiro, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine.

“The generosity of Robert and Louise Dunn and Alan and Edith Wolff provides well-deserved recognition and financial support for two distinguished scientists at the forefront of the burgeoning field of genomics,” Wrighton said. “In research that has the potential to improve the lives of patients worldwide, Drs. Mardis and Wilson are answering critical questions about the intimate relationship between our DNA and diseases such as cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s.”

Wilson is director of The Genome Institute, and Mardis is the institute’s co-director. Together, they led a team of scientists that pioneered sequencing of cancer patients’ genomes. In 2008, the Washington University team became the first in the world to sequence the genome of a cancer patient – a woman with leukemia – and determine the suite of genetic errors that contributed to her disease.

Since then, they have decoded the genomes of several thousand children and adults with cancer to understand the genetic roots of the disease. Through these studies, the team has uncovered intriguing genetic similarities among cancers growing in different parts of the body, suggesting that some disparate tumor types could be treated with the same drugs. Ultimately, this massive endeavor may lead to the development of targeted, personalized cancer treatments based on the unique genetic signature of a patient’s tumor.

“Research by Drs. Mardis and Wilson has forever altered the way we look at and understand cancer,” Shapiro said. “Building on their achievements in cancer genomics, they are applying genome sequencing to other human diseases with the goal of improving diagnosis and treatment.”

In their two decades at The Genome Institute, Mardis and Wilson have sequenced and analyzed billions of bases of DNA from the genomes of bacteria, yeast, roundworms, plants, vertebrates, primates and humans. 

They also have played key roles in large federally funded research initiatives including: the Human Genome Project, to map the human genetic blueprint; The Cancer Genome Atlas Project, to decipher the genetic basis of more than 20 types of cancer; the Human Microbiome Project, to sequence the genomes of bacteria involved in human health and disease; and the 1,000 Genomes Project, to catalog the immense human variation written into the genetic code.

Mardis earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology and a PhD in chemistry and biochemistry, all from the University of Oklahoma. She worked as a senior research scientist at BioRad Laboratories in California before joining the School of Medicine in 1993.

As director of technology development at The Genome Institute, Mardis helped create methods and automation pipelines for sequencing the human genome. Her expertise in developing and implementing next-generation DNA sequencers paved the way for sequencing the first cancer genome.

Mardis was named co-director of The Genome Institute in 2002 and also is a professor of genetics and of molecular microbiology and a research member of the Siteman Cancer Center.

She serves as an editorial board member of the journals Molecular Cancer Research, Genome Research and Annals of Oncology, and is a reviewer for Nature, the New England Journal of Medicine, Cell and Genome Research. In 2010, Mardis received the Scripps Translation Research Award for her work on cancer genomes, and in 2013, she was listed among the top 10 most-cited researchers by Thompson Reuters’ Science Watch. Mardis’ work in cancer genomics also was featured by Discover Magazine as one of the top 100 stories in science in 2013.

The Dunn Distinguished Professorship in Medicine was established by the late Dr. Robert E. Dunn, an alumnus of the School of Medicine, and his late wife, Louise. Dr. Dunn applied to Washington University’s medical school while in the military and graduated with the class of 1948. He completed an internship at Presbyterian Hospital in Chicago and a residency at Huron Rose Hospital in East Cleveland, Ohio.

Dr. Dunn spent most of his career as an anesthesiologist in private practice in St. Louis, Johnstown, Penn., and Sun City Center, Fla. He also taught anesthesiology from 1961 to 1971 at the City Hospital of St. Louis. Louise Dunn attended the University of Iowa and was an active hospital volunteer for many years.

Dr. Dunn died in 2013, and through the couple’s estate, the distinguished professorship was established.

Wilson received his bachelor’s degree in microbiology from Miami University in Ohio and his PhD in chemistry and biochemistry from the University of Oklahoma. He was a research fellow in the Division of Biology at the California Institute of Technology before joining the faculty of the School of Medicine in 1990.

Wilson is widely recognized for his expertise in molecular genetics and large-scale DNA sequencing analysis. He also is a professor of genetics and of molecular microbiology, as well as a research member of the Siteman Cancer Center, where he serves on the Senior Leadership Committee.

In 2011, both Miami University and the University of Oklahoma honored Wilson with distinguished alumnus awards. In 2013, Wilson was named the world’s most-cited researcher by Thompson Reuters’ ScienceWatch.

The late Alan and Edith Wolff have supported research at the School of Medicine for more than three decades, directing funds to studies of Alzheimer’s disease, heart transplant, sepsis, dermatology, cell biology and critical care medicine.

The couple owned Wolff Construction Co., a real estate development, investment and management company founded by Alan A. Wolff in the late 1940s. Edith L. Wolff became president of the company following her husband’s death in 1989 and led the company until her death in 2008.

The Wolff philanthropic legacy at the School of Medicine also has provided for 18 endowed professorships for faculty, the Edith L. Wolff Scholarship-Loan fund for medical students and the Alan A. and Edith L. Wolff Institute, which focuses on advancing promising biomedical research through collaborations of researchers from different disciplines.