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IU Precision Health Initiative recruits scientific leader in drug discovery


Alan Palkowitz is a new leader on the IU Precision Health Initiative research team.

Indiana University Precision Health Initiative researchers have added an industry veteran in drug discovery to their increasingly impressive team of physician-scientists working to prevent and cure diseases prevalent in Indiana.

Alan Palkowitz, PhD, is a new Visiting Research Professor in the IU School of Medicine Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and a key leader and contributor to the IU Precision Health Initiative’s chemical biology and biotherapeutics scientific pillar, which seeks to better understand the cellular processes behind abnormal gene and protein activity to improve scientists’ ability to identify drug targets and develop precision therapeutics. Palkowitz is a former Vice President of Discovery Chemistry Research and Technologies at Eli Lilly and Company.

Led by IU School of Medicine, the Precision Health Initiative is IU’s big health care solution, established in 2016 with a $120 million investment by the school and the IU Grand Challenges program. The initiative incorporates the social sciences, ethics, education, data and computational sciences to enable people to better prevent, identify, treat and cure diseases across a person’s lifespan.

Read on to learn more about Palkowitz and how his work with the initiative is helping to improve the lives of Hoosiers.

Q: Please describe your role with the IU Precision Health Initiative. What will you be working on?

Palkowitz: My primary responsibilities are to aid in building translational strategies and capabilities in chemical biology and biotherapeutics discovery that enable clinical researchers to explore new intervention hypotheses in a number of underserved diseases that are a focus of the Precision Health Initiative disease research teams. It is our intent that this work will synergize with science from other Precision Health Initiative pillars to catalyze new clinical paradigms and insights that may ultimately guide us to novel, breakthrough therapeutics.

Additionally, I will be contributing to the educational goals of the initiative by creating a curriculum focusing on therapeutic discovery and translation. The goal is to prepare students for careers in biomedical research by providing foundational knowledge of the contemporary drug discovery and development process.

What is your background and how will this experience inform your work with the Precision Health Initiative?

Prior to joining the IU School of Medicine, I worked at Eli Lilly and Company for 28 years in drug discovery and development. Before retiring at the end of last year, I was a member of the senior leadership team for Research as the Vice President of Discovery Chemistry Research and Technologies. In this role, I was responsible for small molecule drug discovery across all areas of therapeutic focus including cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular, immunology, pain and neurodegenerative diseases. My move to academia is driven by a further desire to explore translational science in a unique setting that brings clinical learning and basic disease science together in unprecedented ways. I believe the IU Precision Health Initiative and the great talent here provides a unique framework for this—to harvest knowledge from patients and disease and translate it to new, testable precision hypotheses. I hope to contribute my knowledge of biomedical science and many learnings from industry to help IU School of Medicine researchers rapidly advance new treatment options for patients in need.

Why is precision health an important area of research, health care and innovation? And why is it important for the people of Indiana? 

Today, precision health offers great promise to better serve patients by optimizing existing treatments to match their unique presentation in certain (albeit limited for now) disease settings. However, as we look toward the future, the science and strategies that are guiding precision health will direct us toward finding innovative solutions for patients in an expanded number of complex diseases.

Bringing improved health care to the people of Indiana is a top priority of the IU Precision Health Initiative. Like much of the United States, the population of Indiana presents a diversity of health care challenges that require improvements in disease diagnosis, prevention and treatment. While some of this will see near-term progress, we have to be preparing for a future where the population of the state will be aging and living longer, and the diseases that are a focus of the Precision Health Initiative (like cancer and Alzheimer’s disease) will require significant breakthroughs that may be best addressed by precision health advances.

How is IU uniquely positioned to advance precision health research and discovery? 

IU School of Medicine has some of the best clinical researchers and basic scientists in the world, who are bringing new capabilities and clinical approaches to understanding and treating complex diseases. The IU School of Medicine research environment seamlessly bridges clinical and basic science and is an optimal setting to develop and evaluate precision health concepts. The comprehensive leadership and investment behind the IU Precision Health Initiative brings a unifying vision and determination to this work that will hopefully result in sustained advances and impact across many areas.

What excites you about being part of the IU Precision Health Initiative? 

I think the IU Precision Health Initiative is a bold effort and potentially transformative on a number of levels for patients and their families. The biomedical community needs re-invention to improve the success of discovering new medicines and maximizing their effective use in patients. We also need to find ways to bring down the costs and the time it takes to translate new insights either from the clinic or basic science to testable hypotheses and ultimately new treatments. This not only requires changes to the scientific approach but also how we work with and understand patients as integral partners. I think the Precision Health Initiative is a great way to bring all of this together in a unique setting that establishes a strong co-dependence of diverse researchers, technology and patients to improve our understanding of disease, and to inspire creative solutions that can be readily tested. Being able to contribute to this team is personally inspiring.

The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.

Andrea Zeek

Assistant Director of Research Communications

Andrea works closely with IU School of Medicine researchers, the Executive Associate Dean for Research Affairs, and her colleagues in the Office of Strategic Communications to elevate the school's research reputation.