'Grand experiment' entices researcher to Grand Rapids

July 20, 2009
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Jack W. Lipton will be leading brain research with one hand and the translational science team at Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine with the other.

The new chair of CHM’s Division of Translational Science and Molecular Medicine said he’s excited about the future for the medical school and his own research. The division is on its way to becoming a full department, he added.

“This is a grand experiment and no one really knows how it is going to turn out, which is my favorite thing as a scientist. I’m sure it’s going to be successful, but no one ever has taken a medical school, picked it up and moved it to another city,” said Lipton, who is coming here from the University of Cincinnati. 

“The opportunity to establish this department and help to steer the direction of the kind of research that’s going to be coming into the college was a very, very attractive proposition. … This was a chance where I could really put my money where my mouth is and see what I could do as an administrator and manager of a department.”

Lipton said translational research has the potential to impact patients and community.

“Translational science means a lot of different things to different people,” he said. “Some people think that means, in a business sense, that you’re bringing products to market that could then economically benefit the area. That is one thing. 

“But some of the other things that you do are trying to make patient quality of life better.  That doesn’t necessarily mean bringing a product to market. But it means doing research on clinical populations to try and make their lives better.”

Lipton’s research specialty is all between the ears. With a background in psychology, he found a niche in exploring how the brain’s dopamine responds to Parkinson’s disease, a special research focus of the Van Andel Institute and Saint Mary’s Health Care’s Hauenstein Center, and to prenatal exposure to illegal street drugs, he said.

“Those are kind of disparate areas of research when people look at it, but they actually share a lot of commonality. The neurons that die in Parkinson’s disease are dopamine neurons, and that’s what most of the research is on. The same type of neurons that are affected in drugs of abuse — the rewarding circuits in the brain that are associated with drug abuse — are also the dopamine neurons. So I kind of work on both of those because they have a common area in the brain which they both affect.”

Born in New York City, Lipton grew up in Los Angeles. He attended the University of California at Berkley, where he chose psychology as a major.

“A lot of neuroscience grew out of psychology,” he noted. “When I went in to this first survey class, which explained all the different areas in psychology, one of the areas that they touched on was physiological psychology … and I was absolutely fascinated by it.”

He helped faculty with research during summers and had several papers published. “That got me interested in pursuing a Ph.D. in neuroscience at UCLA.”

He was a post doctoral fellow at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, studying drugs of abuse and then moving into Parkinson’s. He brought a group of researchers from Chicago to the University of Cincinnati and is hoping the team will follow him to Grand Rapids.

“My job is to do my best efforts to bring that team along with me. That’s what I’m charged with doing, is bringing in additional Parkinson’s disease researchers for MSU and creating a team here that would be a nationally and internationally prominent Parkinson’s disease research team,” he said.

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