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T.K. Li Joins NIAAA as Director

By Charlotte Armstrong

On the Front Page...

In the course of a distinguished research career, newly arrived NIAAA director Dr. T. K. Li has been at the center of advances that have transformed both the way alcoholism is understood and the means of investigating alcohol's effects on the body and brain. Along with scientific achievements for which he is internationally recognized, he brings to the directorship long experience as a director of a major alcohol research center, a leader in the alcohol research community and an advisor to NIAAA and NIH.


A major focus of his research has been to characterize the structure and dynamics of the multiple genetic variants of alcohol dehydrogenase, the enzyme that catalyzes the first step in the metabolism of ethanol. The speed with which ethanol is metabolized is an important determinant of its physiologic and pathologic effects. Genetic variants of the enzymes involved in the process are thus important factors in determining risk for alcoholism and in understanding the genetics of alcoholism. Li was honored with a MERIT award for research on the molecular basis of differences among individuals in the physiology of these enzymes.

Dr. Ting-Kai Li
He also pioneered the development of animal models in which marked differences in the level of voluntary alcohol consumption could be observed, paralleling the same inborn variation seen in human behavior. The development of these animal lines helped cement the once radical notion that alcohol consumption behavior was genetically influenced. The fact that animal lines could be created to manifest contrasting behaviors demonstrated that genetic influence was at play.

Beyond that, scientists have gone on to study in these animals the behavioral aspects, neurophysiology and genetics of the response to alcohol. Current knowledge of the roles of neurotransmitters in the response to alcohol and how they are involved in intoxication, addiction and withdrawal emerged from studies with animals that varied in their appetite for alcohol. Genetic insights derived from animal studies set the stage for the search for genes in humans that would influence sensitivity to alcohol and the risk of developing alcoholism in someone who drinks.

Li has been integrally involved in the spectrum of investigations that have spun off from these animal studies. Before coming to NIAAA, he directed the institute-sponsored Indiana Alcohol Research Center (IARC) at the Indiana University School of Medicine where he also served as associate dean for research. The research focus of the center is the genetic determinants of alcohol consumption, including ongoing research on the dynamics of alcohol and aldehyde dehydrogenases.

IARC is also one of the sites of NIAAA's Collaborative Study on the Genetics of Alcoholism (COGA), a consortium of centers whose aim is to identify specific genes that underlie vulnerability to developing alcoholism. Li has been a key investigator in COGA, which has to date identified several possible chromosomal locations for alcoholism-related genes. He has also been centrally involved in NIAAA's multidisciplinary Integrative Neuroscience Initiative on Alcoholism, an effort to integrate knowledge from multiple lines of inquiry to understand the changes in the brain that occur with chronic drinking.

Li brings to NIAAA this depth of research expertise and a long record of involvement in the alcohol research community and NIH. He has served on the National Advisory Council on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and other NIAAA advisory groups and on the advisory committee to the director, NIH. He has been president of the Research Society on Alcoholism (RSA) and was, until recently, editor of RSA's journal, Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. Among his honors and awards, Li is a recipient of RSA's Award for Research Excellence, the Jellinek Award and the James B. Isaacson Award for Research in Chemical Dependency Disease. He is a member of the Institute of Medicine.

Born in Nanjing, China, Li earned his undergraduate degree from Northwestern University and his M.D. from Harvard. He worked and studied at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston and was named chief medical resident there in 1965. He also conducted research at the Nobel Medical Research Institute and Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and served as deputy director of the department of biochemistry within the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research before joining the faculty at Indiana University as professor of medicine and biochemistry.

In introducing Li recently to NIAAA's national advisory council, NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni said "his unparalleled scholarship and proven leadership abilities will enable NIAAA to continue to capitalize on the diverse scientific opportunities in biomedical, clinical and prevention research."

"I am honored to have been selected as the new director of NIAAA," says Li. "The field of alcohol research is ripe with many promising opportunities. It is exciting to contemplate where these opportunities will take us. Moreover, I feel very fortunate to be coming to NIH at a time when, perhaps more than ever before, scientists are recognizing the inter-relatedness of so much of the scientific enterprise and the wisdom of working together across disciplines. Studies conducted over the last 25 years have shown that multiple biologic and environmental factors influence the spectrum of alcohol problems. Thus, to provide the knowledge base for more effective treatment and prevention strategies, it is essential that we pursue collaborative studies that cut across disciplinary lines."

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