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Vol. LXVII, No. 8
April 10, 2015

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Atkinson Honored as NIH Distinguished Scholar, Educator

Dr. John P. Atkinson
Dr. John P. Atkinson, a renowned researcher in autoimmunity and chronic inflammation, is this year’s Distinguished Clinical Research Scholar and Educator in Residence, the third to be so honored. Atkinson, a Samuel B. Grant professor of medicine, professor of molecular microbiology and chief of the division of rheumatology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, was the speaker at Clinical Center Grand Rounds recently.

His research focuses on complement regulatory proteins, a system of proteins abundantly present in blood that help to destroy disease-causing bacteria and viruses. His clinical activities center on patients with immune dysfunction including lupus, immunodeficiencies and rare inflammatory disorders. His lab’s recent clinical and translation activities have focused on identifying genetic mutations in complement inhibitors predisposing to human diseases.

He spoke about the effects of such mutations predisposing to atypical hemolytic uremic syndrome and age-related macular degeneration. One interesting aspect of this work is the implication that immune modifiers with a strong genetic basis, probably designed to protect babies from infection, have a tendency to “backfire” in old age. By this he means that evolutionarily driven alterations that protect, for example, against a lethal strep or plague bacillus infection in childhood may cause trouble (too much inflammation) when our immune systems have to deal with biologic debris, such as in age-related macular degeneration.

Atkinson has a long association with NIH. In the 1970s, he was a clinical associate under Shelly Wolfe, a doctor who greatly influenced immunology and infectious diseases research within the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ Laboratory of Clinical Investigation. Atkinson also spent years studying the workings of the complement system. He has served as chairman of the Clinical Center’s board of scientific counselors, on the National Advisory Council for the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases and as an external advisor for the NIH Undiagnosed Diseases Program. He serves on the National Human Genome Research Institute board of scientific counselors and will become chairman of the board in the fall.

Atkinson has trained more than 70 pre-doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows, many of whom have gone on to distinguished careers in academia, government and the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries.

“NIH was and is a great place to train as a physician-scientist,” he said. “I feel like NIH is my second home. I was so fortunate to be exposed to and learn how to perform clinical investigation. I still have a hard time believing that someone would actually pay me to do exciting detective work on the etiology, pathogenesis and treatment of human disease in such a great place.”

In addition to giving Grand Rounds, Atkinson met with medical students, fellows in a variety of disciplines and investigators from a number of institutes during his 2-day residence. The Distinguished Clinical Research Scholar and Educator in Residence is supported by funds the Clinical Center received as part of the Lasker-Bloomberg Public Service Award in 2011.

View the lecture at

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