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Featured Scientist: Apr. 2014


Dr. Rob Wilson

By David Woods, PhD.

Nikolaus Friedreich (1825-1882) who gave his name to Friedreich’s Ataxia became a tenured professor of pathology at the age of 33; had, according to his biography, tremendous drive and enthusiasm… and as a teacher he was known for his ability to transmit that enthusiasm to his students.

Funny. Sounds a bit like scientific adviser to the Friedreich’s Ataxia Research Alliance, (FARA) Dr. Robert. B. Wilson. Rob, as he likes to be called, became an assistant professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at Penn in 1993 when he was 35; is possessed of bubbling energy and enthusiasm; and clearly loves to teach residents and to make them feel comfortable asking questions.

During a lengthy interview at the White Dog Café, a second home to many Penn faculty, Rob responded cheerfully and articulately to questions about his own career and particularly his relationship to FARA.

Between 1998 and 2005, as FARA’s scientific director, he reviewed grant applications, oversaw funding decisions, organized international conferences and established cooperative agreements with pharmaceutical firms. He was on hand for the launch of the Friedreich Ataxia Center of Excellence in the spring––a joint venture with CHOP and UPENN, and FARA—which kicked off a $3.25 million grant program for research into FA.

Along with principal investigator David Lynch Rob himself has received a number of grants, including one for over $1 million through the Center of Excellence. In 2010, he received FARA’s distinguished investigator award and has garnered multiple teaching awards at the University of Pennsylvania where he is professor of pathology and laboratory medicine in the University's School of Medicine.

He has lectured and published widely on topics related to FA, dating back to 1998 where he spoke on ironing out the complexities of the disease at the University of Rochester… followed in 2000 and 2001with lectures on iron metabolism in FA, and frataxin deficiency, a fundamental factor in the disease. He has authored or co-authored more than 50 articles on the topic.

Curiously, this stellar academic career started out at Brown University where Rob gained a bachelor of science degree in biochemistry and a bachelor of arts degree in music. Yes, music. He comes from a gifted musical family and writes music today; h e notes the link between music and medicine: musical therapy being used in such diseases as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. Indeed, in his book Musicophilia psychiatrist Oliver Sacks explores this link in detail. Says Rob: “The medical profession is enriched by musicians.” He and his wife Amy Behrman, director of occupational medicine at the University of Pennsylvania's health system and an advocate of flu vaccinations for all health workers, are avid music lovers and frequently attend performances of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Rob says he started his foray in FA serendipitously, seeing the disease gene identified 130 years after Dr. Friedrich defined it, and believing that working in this field provided a combination of science and humanism. ‘That's what gets me up in the morning,” he says. “Therapeutic possibilities start to present themselves.” The prime focus is on Frataxin and the chemical defects underlying the disorder have led to several major therapeutic initiatives aimed at increasing Frataxin.

Rob is hugely enthusiastic about FARA. He gives great credit to the Alliance’s founder and president, Ron Bartek, who, he says, is keenly intelligent in every way and especially with a highly developed social intelligence, and vision. Unlike other organizations that seek to perpetuate themselves Bartek would like to see FARA put out of business, with its mission––a cure for Friedreich’s Ataxia––accomplished.

Rob Wilson shares that hope and is well qualified and well placed to turn it into a reality.

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