Wells Center scientists among Indiana's "homegrown" researchers
Mar. 6, 2014
A skybridge links the Herman B Wells Center for Pediatric Research to Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health. The corridor is a two-way street for scientists and physicians who share a passion for answering formidable questions about children’s diseases -- and then using those answers to benefit the children of Indiana and the world.
As part of the Department of Pediatrics at the IU School of Medicine, the Wells Center conducts basic science research as well as translational studies, which seek to move research findings quickly into the clinical setting. Altogether, the center includes 40 researchers and 230 staff members who assist in their collaborative research on a variety of childhood diseases and conditions including cancer, diabetes, heart defects and asthma.
The center's opportunities for collaboration attract scientists from all over the world -- and bring others back to their home state. They include:
D. Wade Clapp, M.D., chair and Richard L. Schreiner Professor of Pediatrics at the IU School of Medicine, grew up on a farm a mile outside of Marysville, Ind., where he was one of 46 graduates in his rural consolidated high school class. He graduated from Hanover College and the IU School of Medicine, and completed a neonatology fellowship at Case Western Reserve University before joining its faculty. He had been there only a couple of years when he became one of the Wells Center’s earliest recruits, in 1991.
Dr. Clapp's research focuses on genetic diseases with a predisposition to cancer in babies and young children, specifically neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1) and Fanconi anemia. His work captured the attention of Mindi Hampton from California, whose daughter has NF1. Hampton read a paper that Clapp and his collaborators had published showing that an FDA-approved drug called Gleevec effectively shrunk tumors in children with NF1. A tumor in her then-4-year-old daughter Emily’s neck was compressing her airway. When other children’s hospitals were unable to help her, Hampton phoned Clapp.
The Hampton family came to Indianapolis so Emily could participate in a clinical trial. The drug shrunk Emily’s tumors, and today she is an active second-grader.
“There are many children’s diseases with imperfect therapies or none at all," Dr. Clapp said. "It’s really pediatric faculty that step in to identify the root causes of the disease, to work out therapies and preclinical models, and to direct the phase 1 and phase 2 trials. I wish people knew that it’s really a small club of scientists that actually work in this area.”
The Emilys of the world are “very motivating," he added.
Laura S. Haneline, M.D. professor of pediatrics and microbiology and immunology at the IU School of Medicine, spent her earliest years in tiny Bippus, Ind., and then grew up in nearby Fort Wayne. At Ball State University, her interest in physical therapy evolved into interest in medical school. She completed her studies, residency and fellowship in neonatology at the IU School of Medicine.
Life in a lab was not on her radar until her fellowship. “I’d always loved puzzles and mysteries growing up, and that’s exactly what research is -- asking questions about patient care and designing studies to answer those questions,” Dr. Haneline said. She went on to complete a post-doctoral fellowship at the Wells Center.
Today, Dr. Haneline’s research focuses on understanding how complications during pregnancy -- such conditions as maternal diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity -- alter the development of growing babies. Studying stem cells and progenitor cells from these babies may lead to better ways of treating the mothers to protect their fetuses from potentially harmful alterations.
From mouse models to human samples, the progression of her research interests keeps Haneline motivated. “It’s still very exciting,” she said. “I feel like I’m closer to the patient now in the research that I’m doing. Since this wasn’t a preconceived plan for my career, I wasn’t always sure I’d be successful. My first NIH grant was validation that, yes, I’m meant to do this.”
From Huntington, Ind., Mark R. Kelley, Ph.D., associate director of the Wells Center and Betty and Earl Herr Professor of Pediatric Oncology Research, said his educational pursuits took him to DePauw University, the Oak Ridge (Tennessee) National Laboratory, Louisiana State University and The Rockefeller University in New York City. He came from Loyola University Medical School to the IU School of Medicine in 1993.
"You can’t predetermine where you’re going to end up," Dr. Kelley said. "Following the science and keeping an open mind brought me back to Indiana, which is great. People don’t know what’s here."
Dr. Kelley’s interest in molecular biology was timed perfectly. He emerged from 10 years of training as the field was taking off, and his research evolved with its growth from fruit flies to human cell culture to children with cancer.
Dr. Kelley’s primary research focuses on a particular pathway in DNA repair. His lab has been studying one crucial enzyme in this pathway for years and how it “talks” to proteins in normal cells and cancer cells. Based on this research, Dr. Kelley’s biotechnical company, ApeX Therapeutics, recently received a grant from the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health to develop a new drug strategy for childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia and to explore related types of leukemia that may benefit from this therapy.
Dr. Kelley doesn’t need to look far for motivation. "If you think you’re having a bad day, walk across to the hospital and see some of these kids who have these cancers, particularly the ones that are hard to treat," he said. "That’s who you’re doing it for."
Mervin C. Yoder Jr., M.D., director of the Wells Center and Richard and Pauline Klingler Professor of Pediatrics at the IU School of Medicine, thought he’d be a country doctor, perhaps even in his rural hometown of Topeka, Ind. But after graduating from Malone College in Ohio, his numerous applications to medical schools were all turned down. So he went to Indiana State University for graduate study in education and to become a teacher instead.
"The very first day, a fascinating thing happened," he said. Dr. Yoder was in the office of the chairman of the life sciences department, when a secretary interrupted their conversation to announce the professor had just been awarded a research grant. When the chairman mused, "I’m going to need a student..." Dr. Yoder stepped up.
"That started my research career," he said. "I had never been in a lab, but as soon as I walked in, I knew that was my calling." He completed his master’s degree and reapplied to the IU School of Medicine -- this time to become a clinician-researcher.
Since Dr. Yoder joined the IU School of Medicine in 1985, his research on how stem cells emerge during the development of an embryo has fundamentally changed the way researchers think within the field. The applicability of his research extends to many diseases.
The Wells Center’s commitment to translational research, which emphasizes moving discoveries quickly from lab to patient, suits Dr. Yoder’s interests as a neonatologist. Babies in Riley Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit “still have problems that we’ve had no answers for in three decades,” he said. “These are very complicated developmental questions that are not easily resolved. That’s frustrating -- and motivating.”
A version of this article first appeared in the 2013 Riley Children's Foundation Annual Report