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JAMES HILDRETH, dean of the UC Davis College of Biological Sciences, believes that the advancement of translational science could be accelerated by individuals who are knowledgeable in the methods and approaches of both basic sciences and applied disciplines. This is probably true for translational biology in general and translational medicine in particular.

He already has plans for a program based on this concept. “Postdoctoral fellows could be co-mentored by a clinical scientist and

 


James Hildreth Ph.D., M.D., dean of the
UC Davis College of Biological Sciences

a basic scientist under what I call ‘bridging fellowships.’ That dual relationship would help drive the translational process of mobilizing observations made at the bench into meaningful interventions for people with disease. We need to think creatively about new models,” said Hildreth, whose own focused observation and creative thinking throughout the past 30 years have increased understanding of the mechanisms of HIV and AIDS. His discoveries have earned him numerous accolades, notably the 2011 NIH Director’s Pioneer Award.

But Hildreth might not have pursued that career path had it not been for two patients he encountered in 1985 when he was a third-year Johns Hopkins University medical student. At that time, he had an interest in immunology research and was intent on becoming a transplant surgeon. “As part of my rotation experience, I took care of a young woman who had just given birth to a baby. Both she and the baby turned out to be HIV-positive. That had a profound effect on my thinking,” Hildreth said. When he later became a faculty member at Johns Hopkins, his department chair persuaded him to establish an HIV research program focused on preventing transmission of the infection.

Before joining UC Davis in August 2011, Hildreth was the director of the translational research center at Meharry Medical College in Tennessee, where he led a research team examining the biological basis for health disparities in HIV/AIDS. In 2001, while Hildreth was still at Johns Hopkins, he and his research team discovered the role of cholesterol in HIV infection. He has since been developing a vaginal microbicide containing beta-cyclodextrin, a cyclic polymer of glucose that removes cholesterol from cellular membranes, as a means to block infection. He is preparing to conduct a phase 1 trial in Atlanta and at UC Davis to study this same compound as a new approach to treat HIV infections.

“Our colleagues at the UC Davis CTSC will be helping us with that study,” said Hildreth, who has academic appointments in the UC Davis departments of Internal Medicine and Molecular and Cellular Biology. “The CTSC staff has been very helpful in assisting us with preparation of the investigational new drug application to the Food and Drug Administration, and they will be an integral part of the study once it begins.”

The research is a response to a disturbing disparity. “Globally, two-thirds of the people who are infected by HIV are of African descent. Of 34 million people infected or living with HIV worldwide, 22 million live in the southern half of the African continent. Here in the United States, African Americans make up only 13 percent of the total population, but almost half of the individuals living with HIV are African American,” Hildreth said. “Social, cultural, perhaps even political factors have contributed to the disparity in the United States.”

The evolutionary path of Hildreth’s research has made him a strong advocate of basic research. “A lot of the most spectacular treatments we have for diseases are the result of knowledge gained from individuals conducting basic research. That’s why I’m excited about interfacing the basic science research we’re doing in the College of Biological Sciences with individuals who do more applied or translational work,” Hildreth said. “The CTSC has a very important role to play in the process of shaping basic discoveries into clinical applications, and having one on our campus is a tremendous asset for UC Davis.”

Hildreth obtained his bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, where he graduated magna cum laude in chemistry in 1979. He was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University in England, where he earned his Ph.D. in immunology in 1982.