Neurologist Dennis Bourdette, whose work has benefited thousands of people suffering from multiple sclerosis and other neurological disorders, has been named this year’s recipient of the School of Medicine’s Distinguished Alumni Award for his contributions to society and outstanding achievements in medicine.
Since receiving his medical degree from the UC Davis School of Medicine in 1978, Bourdette has spent his career trying to unlock some of the mysteries of the brain. He has made outstanding contributions to the field of neurology as an excellent leader, noted researcher and superb teacher, as well as a national expert on the clinical care of multiple sclerosis.
Bourdette is the Roy and Eulalia Swank Family Research Professor and chairman of the Department of Neurology at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) in Portland, Ore. He completed his residency at OHSU, then undertook a postdoctoral fellowship in neuroimmunology at OHSU’s affiliated Portland Veterans Affairs Medical Center. He became an assistant professor in the Department of Neurology in 1984, rising through the ranks to become a professor in 1997.
In 1983, Bourdette founded the OHSU Multiple Sclerosis Center, a regional clinical center of excellence as well as an internationally recognized research program. The center has seven neurologists who care for more than 1,000 patients each year, as well as 10 different research labs working on multiple sclerosis with more than $5 million a year in research funding.
"I’m inspired every day by the many patients I see who bravely struggle with this disabling disease. This inspires me to continue doing research on MS, which is how we will ultimately conquer this illness."
Before becoming chair of the Department of Neurology, he served as chief of the neurology service at the Portland Veterans Affairs Medical Center. There he improved the neurologic care of veterans while insuring that residents and medical students received excellent training at the VA and that his faculty had time for academic pursuits. He maintains a position at the VA as co-director of the VA Multiple Sclerosis Center of Excellence, West, one of two national centers that seek to improve the care of veterans with MS throughout the United States.
As chair of the OHSU Department of Neurology, he expanded and improved clinical care, research and education in an already excellent neurology department, despite challenging financial times. His department consistently ranks in the top 10 to 15 neurology departments in National Institutes of Health funding, and attracts top-quality residents and postdoctoral fellows.
To bridge basic and clinical neurosciences research within his department, Bourdette raised more than $5 million in philanthropic support and persuaded OHSU to fund construction of new laboratory space. He began recruiting faculty to the Jungers Center for Neuro-sciences Research, and helped bring together more than 200 basic and clinical neuroscientists under the banner of the OHSU Brain Institute – the leadership council of which he is chair.
Bourdette has published more than 140 scholarly articles and has been principal investigator on numerous research grants from the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the National MS Society. He has maintained a funded laboratory research program while also conducting clinical trials.
Among his many research accomplishments, Bourdette served as the clinical investigator who was instrumental in extending two novel treatment approaches – he developed in an animal model of multiple sclerosis, T-cell receptor peptide vaccination and recombinant T-cell ligands into early clinical trials, supporting the work of basic sciences colleagues Arthur Vandenbark and Halina Offner.
Independently, Bourdette discovered that the antioxidant lipoic acid was effective in treating an animal model of MS, and is studying lipoic acid in early clinical trials in MS. In the past few years, Bourdette has turned his attention to the problem of neuroprotection in MS. In collaboration with Mike Forte at the Vollum Institute at OHSU, he has discovered that inactivation of a mitochondrial protein, cyclophilin D, is neuroprotective in EAE (experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis). This discovery has served as the basis for a patent application, and he is working with a Swiss biotechnology company to develop one of their drugs as a novel therapy for MS based on this discovery.
Bourdette says his inspiration to become a neurologist came from Nazhiyath Vijayan, a professor emeritus in the Department of Neurology in the UC Davis School of Medicine who is an expert in diagnosis and treatment for persons suffering from chronic headaches.
"I found it fascinating working with him and I became very interested in diseases of the brain and the process of making the diagnosis and caring for patients," he says. "I also recognized at that time there were limited therapeutic options in neurology, and believed that research would result in better care for persons with neurological disorders. I was excited about the possibility of being part of that growth in knowledge, and saw neurology as an area where I could really make a contribution."
Bourdette holds a special place in his heart for those suffering from multiple sclerosis. "I have great patients and I feel honored to be their physician. Many have been my patients for over 20 years," he says. "I feel privileged to have this kind of relationship with patients, and I’m inspired every day by the many patients I see who bravely struggle with this disabling disease. This inspires me to continue doing research on MS, which is how we will ultimately conquer this illness."
The need is significant. More than 81 million Americans over age 20 have one or more types of cardiovascular disease such as high blood pressure, coronary heart disease or congestive heart failure. Peripheral vascular disease is estimated to affect up to 10 million Americans. UC Davis Health System is improving cardiovascular health through state-of-the-art patient care, cutting-edge research, education and outreach.