STORRS, CT — Urs Boelsterli, a professor of pharmaceutical sciences and toxicology, was installed as the University of Connecticut’s first Boehringer Ingelheim Endowed Chair in Mechanistic Toxicology today. The endowed chair was established through a $1.25 million gift to the School of Pharmacy from Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals Inc. in 2006. It is the first such chair in the nation.
Mechanistic toxicology is the study of the processes and mechanisms underlying the toxicity of chemicals. It explains how foreign compounds such as drugs, environmental pollutants, and industrial chemicals exert potentially damaging effects on cells and tissues.
The field is widely regarded as the next frontier for drug development and medical breakthroughs because of its potential to greatly reduce the number of drugs that fail to meet FDA safety standards during the extensive clinical trial period and the number of successfully launched drugs later recalled because of rare but unpredictable adverse effects.
Boelsterli was chosen to fill the chair after an extensive international search and year-long selection process.The Swiss-born researcher comes to UConn from the National University of Singapore, where he directed the toxicology program. He brings more than 25 years of combined academic and industry experience to his new post, including a previous position as head of molecular toxicology for Switzerland-based Roche Pharma.
Boelsterli has published more than 80 peer-reviewed original articles and reviews and is the sole author of a best-selling textbook on mechanistic toxicology. He also consults for a number of pharmaceutical companies and has founded a consulting company focusing on “idiosyncratic drug-induced liver injury.”
More than 600 medications approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration can inflict liver injury, in certain cases severe enough to require a transplant or even lead to death. Though exceedingly rare, these reactions are unpredictable and, in turn, prompt drug withdrawals from the market and halt the development of promising future drugs, Boelsterli said.
Boelsterli specializes in understanding the cellular and molecular mechanisms that cause such idiosyncratic drug-induced liver injury. He currently is working to develop predictive tests that could help determine which patients are at highest risk for such adverse drug reactions and to identify chemical compounds that could protect mitochondria, regarded as key mediators of cell death, against these dangerous effects.
“I was drawn to UConn by the excellent reputation of its toxicology program, both nationally and abroad, and by the research and teaching opportunities presented by the creation of the first endowed chair in my field,” Boelsterli said. “Ultimately, our research could open new avenues to potential therapeutic interventions and aid in the design of safer drugs, but that kind of progress will only be possible through close collaboration with other national and international research institutions and the pharmaceutical drug industry,” he said. “Those are precisely the kinds of collaborations the Boehringer Ingelheim Chair will facilitate.”
In addition to fostering multidisciplinary research collaborations at UConn and beyond, Boelsterli will create a course in mechanistic toxicology and encourage faculty and students to present research findings nationally and internationally.
“BI has a long-standing commitment to academic excellence. It is important for us to support universities so they, in turn, can develop highly trained and academically well prepared scientists. We also seek to support universities that pursue cutting edge science and provide scientists to Pharma who will serve mankind through discovery and development of break-through medicines,” said Dr. Peter Farina, Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals Inc.’s senior vice president of development. “For these reasons, we are convinced that UConn was the right place to accomplish this and we are pleased with the University’s selection of Dr. Urs Boelsterli as the first professor to fill the BI Endowed Chair in Mechanistic Toxicology.”
“Attracting a researcher of Boelsterli’s caliber to our endowed chair in mechanistic toxicology – the first of its kind at any research institution nationwide – raises our profile nationally and internationally and cements our standing among this country’s elite schools of pharmacy,” said Dean Robert McCarthy. Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals Inc. previously donated $250,000 to name a laboratory in the new Pharmacy/ Biology Building that specializes in dosage forms. The company previously endowed faculty positions at the UConn Health Center and Yale University. UConn has a total of 57 endowed chairs and 20 endowed professorships.