Molecular biologist James Bliska to lead Geisel's Cystic Fibrosis Cluster

by Jasmine Oh | 1/24/18 2:00am

Jim Bliska photographed in Hanover, NH on Wednesday, December 13, 2017. Copyright 2017 Robert C Strong II
by Robert C Strong II / The Dartmouth

Earlier this month, molecular biologist and American Association for the Advancement of Science fellow James Bliska joined the Geisel School of Medicine as a professor in microbiology and immunology as well as the Personalized Treatments for Cystic Fibrosis Cluster’s senior lead faculty member.

Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disorder that causes bacterial infection that results in lung damage, decrease in lung function and possible death, according to Dartmouth Lung Biology Center director Bruce Stanton.

The cluster initiative began in the fall of 2013 when College President Phil Hanlon shared his academic vision that outlined five tactics, including the establishment of cluster hiring to expand faculty and support graduate programs. Hanlon identified 10 areas on which he and other senior faculty wanted to focus research interests and labeled them as clusters. The cluster initiative also aims to conduct research in interdisciplinary groups that will address global themes, including cystic fibrosis. In January 2016, the CF cluster was one of the last to be announced by the College, along with two other clusters regarding climate change and cybersecurity.

“I worked with [Hanlon] to write the application and to solicit the money to fund it,” Stanton said. “It was formally approved a little bit more than a year ago. We started looking for the senior hire about February last year ... so the idea was to raise money to hire three new faculty, so [Bliska] is the first and lead hire as the senior lead faculty member.”

Bliska, whose hiring was announced Jan. 8, is currently moving back and forth between the College and Stony Brook University, where he was previously a professor of molecular genetics and microbiology and the director of the school’s Center for Infectious Diseases.

Bliska said he accepted the position at Dartmouth for several reasons, including the existing research on cystic fibrosis at Dartmouth, especially at Geisel. According to Bliska, Dartmouth’s cystic fibrosis research, by faculty like Stanton, has built up a strong group of investigators who have made several discoveries in the field.

“That [work] has created a strong momentum for the cluster to take advantage of and to create an opportunity for me to become a part of that,” Bliska said. “Beyond that, I’m also joining the department of microbiology and immunology, which is an internationally-recognized department with excellent scientists and chair. I was excited to become a part of that department and the cluster mechanism that allows for [the] creation of [a] really strong group of investigators to pursue the research on lung infections.”

According to Stanton, the CF Research Center at the College has been around for 20 years, and the center has received grants from the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation as well as the National Institutes of Health. There are approximately 60 people working on full-time CF research in about 10 different labs, including one led by professor of immunology and microbiology Deborah Hogan that involves undergraduates in CF research.

“I work in [Hogan’s] lab at Geisel, and I am doing my thesis on bacterial isolates taken from the lungs of individuals with CF,” said Rachel Van Gelder ’18. “I am in the lab for most of the time writing my thesis, but there are a lot of different labs for different topics in CF research at the College that I do not know about as well [as my topic].”

According to the Office of the Provost website, the CF cluster “will direct the development of cutting-edge, personalized medicine and treatments for cystic fibrosis and other fungal and bacterial lung infections.” With a $15 million donation made by an anonymous donor to the cluster approximately two years ago, Bliska said he is looking forward to getting the cluster running and maximizing its research productivity and funding once his laboratory in Remsen Hall finishes its renovations in May.

According to Stanton, a part of Bliska’s job will be to enhance the research areas within the CF field. Stanton said Bliska’s former research was focused on a different kind of bacteria that infects the lungs than what Dartmouth’s CF center is currently studying, which will add to and complement the center’s scientific research expertise.

“It’s a very serious disease, it affects a large number of people and it’s an important disease medically,” Bliska said. “Cystic fibrosis patients are infections by opportunistic pathogens, so we’re going to study how opportunistic pathogens cause lung infections. We’re also interested in developing new therapeutics to treat these infections and we’re also interested in the possibility of genome editing, which is a little bit further down the road, but we’re also interested in that.”

Furthermore, Bliska said he is looking forward to hiring two new junior faculty, who will become assistant professors in their departments at Geisel and interact with the cluster.

“The goal is to have maybe four or five faculty in the cluster and they will each have their own independent research program, but there will be interaction between those programs,” he said.

Both Bliska and Stanton noted the importance of interdisciplinary work and collaboration with existing researchers at Dartmouth. Bliska added that interdisciplinary research brings faculty with different expertise together to synergize and create new ideas or areas of research, as well as increase productivity. By also collaborating with faculty in the Lung Biology Center, he said that the center could serve as an umbrella mechanism for everyone in the CF field to interact with one another, regardless of whether they are members of the cluster.

“With my hiring, it kind of formalizes the creation of the cluster, and in the next few months, I’m going to be working to administratively get the cluster up and running,” Bliska said. “When [I move into my lab] in April or May, I’ll be joining [Stanton] ... and we’ll hire additional faculty and fill out that space, which will hopefully create a really successful cluster.”