Biomedical research offers perfect mix for Davidson

Photo by Susan McClellen.

Beverly Davidson comes from a very medically inclined family. Her father was the family physician for the small town of Alma in south central Nebraska where she grew up, her mother was a nurse, and her three siblings have become a neurosurgeon, a physical therapist, and a medical technician.

“It makes for interesting dinner conversations,” says Davidson, professor of internal medicine, neurology, and molecular physiology and biophysics in the UI Carver College of Medicine who will deliver the 2011 UI Presidential Lecture Feb. 27.

It also helps explains her early interest in science. But while her father’s hard work, expertise, and commitment to caring for his patients and community were certainly a source of inspiration for Davidson, she gradually came to the realization that medicine was not what she wanted to do. Instead, she gravitated to biomedical research as a way to combine her passion for science, her practical, hands-on inclination, and her desire to find ways to treat some truly devastating diseases.

Were you interested in science from an early age?

I was one of the few people I knew who subscribed to Scientific American in high school, and was just as excited to learn about lightning as I was about the circulatory system of waterfowl. I originally intended to become a marine biologist—I wanted to be the female Jacques Cousteau—and I applied to undergraduate schools in California. However, with three other siblings also college-bound, family finances dictated that I choose a school in Nebraska and I received a very substantial scholarship from Nebraska Wesleyan University, so that’s where I went.

What made you decide on research as a career?

Presidential lecture

What: “Genes as Medicine: Molecular Therapy Comes of Age”

Who: Beverly Davidson, Roy J. Carver Biomedical Research Chair in internal medicine

When: The program begins at 3:30 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 27

Where: Levitt Center for University Advancement, fourth floor assembly halls

More info:

As an undergraduate I loved biology and chemistry but couldn’t decide between the two. I was pre-med, pre-dentistry, pre every allied health, and nothing really gnawed at me. Having worked with my dad I knew what medicine was about and I could tell it really wasn’t what I wanted. Then my professors reminded me that I’d been doing research since my freshman year—did I enjoy it? Well, yes, I enjoyed it a lot; I just had no idea you could do it full time as a career.

I went to the University of Michigan for graduate school in biological chemistry. In graduate school, you rotate through several labs. In my first rotation, in a bacteriology lab, I generated a bacterial strain that I named after myself. My second project was on viruses that infect mammals. That was interesting too, but most of the work was in a refrigerated room, and that was not appealing. The next rotation was in a lab that studied genetic diseases where mutations in a particular protein caused an inherited brain disorder. I was fascinated from the get-go. That lab merged my interest in science and my desire to do things with my hands with my interest in medicine and therapies.

What do you study in your lab?

My lab is currently focused on developing gene therapies for inherited brain disorders.

Some of these disorders, collectively known as Batten disease, are fatal, early-onset childhood neurodegenerative diseases. They are generally misdiagnosed early, so by the time it is correctly diagnosed, many families have more than one affected child. It is very devastating to see the affected families, and they do visit the lab. But these families also provide an enormous source of motivation for the students, post docs, and myself. We are devising methods to try to get a functional copy of the protein these children are missing back into their brains.

For other inherited genetic diseases such as Huntington’s disease, we are trying to understand if we can reduce expression of a mutated protein so that brain cells are spared, using a technique called RNA interference.

With both techniques—adding a protein, or silencing one—we have been able to do this in mice models of these disorders and are now testing in larger animal models. We hope to be testing in humans in less than five years.

On Feb. 27 you’re giving the 2011 University of Iowa Presidential Lecture, “Genes as Medicine: Molecular Therapy Comes of Age,” focusing on the evolution and current status of gene therapies. What do you see as the value of scientists communicating their work to the public?

Scientists generally do a poor job explaining the importance of research and what it can provide for societies down the road—better health care, new treatments for disorders that are currently fatal, new ideas on how to remain healthy. Part of the problem may be that science can be overhyped. A breakthrough for us could be moving from something working in a test tube to something performing similarly in a cell. A breakthrough for someone not involved in science may be moving something in a tube to curing a patient of disease. We need to do better explaining the differences in scale and in timeline and the importance of those small milestones.

So, whatever happened to the marine biology idea?

Interestingly, I didn’t receive scuba certification until 2010. My kids are naturals in the water, as is my husband, Jay. I look forward to taking advantage of scuba diving to encourage their joy of discovery.