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NIH's Gerald D. Fischbach,Named Columbia's Vice President for Health and Biomedical Sciences

Gerald D. Fischbach

Gerald D. Fischbach, M.D., Director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has been named Columbia University's Vice President for Health and Biomedical Sciences, Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences and Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Columbia President George Rupp announced Tues., Dec. 5. Fischbach will also be the Harold and Margaret Hatch Professor of the University in the Faculties of Health Sciences and of Medicine.

A pioneering researcher Fischbach was the Nathan Marsh Pusey Professor of Neurobiology and Chairman of the Neurobiology Departments at both the Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital before assuming his current position at NIH in 1998.

At Columbia he will head a division that includes four health science professional schools with 27 academic departments, 3,000 students and 2,300 full-time faculty; a biotechnology park; some 40 biomedical research and treatment centers; and physician practice affiliations with two dozen hospitals. The Health Sciences Division has an annual operating budget of $815 million and has $230 million in sponsored research grants.

Fischbach replaces Herbert Pardes, M.D., who left Columbia in December 1999 to become Vice Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer of New York Presbyterian Hospital.

"Gerry Fischbach is a highly respected researcher and a far-sighted leader who has had a distinguished career at NIH and the Harvard and Washington University medical schools. He is superbly qualified to meet the challenges and opportunities of leading a world-class health and biomedical sciences center," said President Rupp. "Columbia has made dramatic progress in biomedical education and research, and in the clinical practice of our physicians, both in our hospital-based and clinical programs. I am delighted that Gerry Fischbach has agreed to lead our continuing aggressive initiatives in the health and biomedical sciences"

Jonathan R. Cole, Columbia's Provost and Dean of Faculties, co-chaired the search with Dr. Timothy Pedley, the Chair and Henry and Lucy Moses Professor of Neurology. Cole said of Fischbach: "A man of exceptional scientific achievement, intelligence, energy, determination, strategic vision about the future of biomedical sciences and its links to clinical medicine, Gerald Fischbach is the ideal choice for Vice President of the Health Sciences and Dean of the Faculty of Medicine. Building upon Herb Pardes' successes, I fully expect that Gerry Fischbach will demonstrate the leadership necessary for Columbia to take full advantage of the biological revolutions that have begun. He will help us become an even more distinguished university.

"When we began this search, many people inside and outside of Columbia said to me: 'Try to get someone like Gerald Fischbach. He would be terrific.' I asked, 'Why not get Gerry himself?' And we are fortunate to have succeeded in that effort. We all welcome him to Columbia."

Fischbach said of his appointment, "This is an extraordinary time in biomedical and health sciences. Advances at all levels of analysis, ranging from molecules to behavior, have begun to revolutionize the practice of medicine. Investigators throughout Columbia have contributed enormously to this revolution. It is privilege to join this distinguished faculty and help shape its course in the coming years."

Fischbach received his M.D. degree in 1965 from Cornell University Medical School and interned at the University of Washington Hospital. He began his research career at the National Institutes of Health, serving from 1966 - 1973. He subsequently served on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, first as Associate Professor of Pharmacology from 1973 - 1978 and then as Professor until 1981. From 1981 - 1990, Fischbach was the Edison Professor of Neurobiology and Head of the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology at Washington University School of Medicine.

In 1990, he returned to Harvard Medical School where he was the Nathan Marsh Pusey Professor of Neurobiology and Chairman of the Neurobiology Departments of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital until 1998.

Fischbach is a past-President of the Society for Neuroscience and he now serves on several medical and scientific advisory boards. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Institute of Medicine, and he is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a non-resident Fellow of the Salk Institute.

Throughout his career, Fischbach has studied the formation and maintenance of synapses, the junctions between nerve cells and their targets through which information is transferred. He has been particularly interested in the neuromuscular junction, a synapse that is easily accessible to experimental manipulation. He pioneered the use of cultured neurons and muscle cells to characterize the biochemical, cellular, and electrophysiological mechanisms underlying development and function of the neuromuscular junction.

Beginning in the 1970's, Fischbach embarked on a search for molecules released by motor neurons that regulate the number of acetylcholine receptors on muscle cells. This work culminated in 1993 with the purification and cloning of a protein called ARIA (for acetylcholine receptor-inducing activity) that stimulates synthesis of acetylcholine receptors by skeletal muscle cells. This molecule is now known to be a member of a family of trophic factors called neuregulins that are thought to be involved in a variety of important developmental processes in the nervous system. Because ARIA and other neuregulins act by binding to tyrosine kinase receptors on target cells, Fischbach's work was key in demonstrating that synaptic development relies upon biochemical mechanisms that are broadly similar to those that underlie the action of nerve growth factor and other well known trophic molecules. His current focus is on trophic factors that influence synaptic efficacy and nerve cell survival.

Fischbach's wife, Ruth, has been appointed Professor of Bioethics in Psychiatry at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center.

Ruth L. Fischbach served as Senior Advisor for Biomedical Ethics in the Office of Extramural Research at NIH. She also was a member of many NIH and inter-agency committees concerned with safeguarding the rights and protecting the welfare of participants in research. Prior to joining NIH, she as a bioethicist/medical sociologist at the Harvard Medical School, where she was assistant professor in the Department of Social Medicine with joint appointments in the Division of Medical Ethics and the Division on Aging.

Her research efforts have focused on projects involving decisions around the end of life, autonomy of the elderly, communication between patients and health care professionals, pain assessment and management, and the experiences of research subjects particularly as they relate to informed consent. Her current work focuses on research ethics.

She received a B.S. from Cornell, an M.S. and a Ph.D. from Boston University, and an M.P.E. from Washington University.

The Fischbach's have four children.

Fischbach's colleagues and former colleagues at NIH lauded his accomplishments there:

Harold Varmus, President and CEO of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and former Director of the NIH, said, "At the NIH, Gerry Fischbach's keen intelligence and insight helped shape national policy on issues of great research and societal sensitivity. Columbia University is fortunate to have attracted someone of Gerry's stature to lead its biomedical area."

Richard Klausner, Director of the National Cancer Institute, said "Gerry has been a marvelous head of the neurology institute. He has brought a level and a set of expectations for both integrity and expertise that will leave their mark. He will be missed here, and I believe that he will be an outstanding head of Columbia's Health Sciences Division. I look forward to watching the great things he will do in New York."

Columbia's Health Sciences Division encompasses the College of Physicians and Surgeons, the Joseph L. Mailman School of Public Health, the School of Dental and Oral Surgery, and the School of Nursing. It also includes the Audubon Biomedical Science and Technology Park, New York City's only university-related research park, which houses the only biotechnology business incubator in the city.

The Health Sciences Division has more than 40 research and treatment centers including the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior, the Center for Women's Health, Columbia Genome Center, the Institute of Comparative Medicine, the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer, and the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center. It also has affiliations with two dozen hospitals including New York Presbyterian Hospital, Harlem Hospital and St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center.

Published: Dec 05, 2000
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002


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