SPOKANE, Wash. — Two top-flight researchers with international reputations have been recruited to Spokane through the combined efforts of Washington State University Spokane and Sacred Heart Medical Center. Both are specialists in genetics.
Lisa G. Shaffer, PhD, and Bassem Bejjani, MD, were recruited from Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, TX. They come from the number one genetics department in the U.S., as ranked on criteria including total National Institutes of Health dollars, total number of NIH R01 grants, and impact factor of publications in the field of human genetics. Shaffer served as director of the Kleberg Cytogenetics Laboratory, and Bejjani as the lab’s medical director.
Bejjani investigates the molecular genetics of hereditary eye diseases such as primary congenital glaucoma, and is a pediatrician and clinical geneticist. Shaffer’s research focuses on mechanisms leading to chromosomal rearrangements that cause developmental disabilities such as Down syndrome and autism, and other birth defects.
“Drs. Shaffer and Bejjani will have an immediate and lasting impact in the research community in Spokane. Not only will they advance their own internationally recognized research programs here but they will contribute to other medical research through collaborations with colleagues at WSU and Sacred Heart, and in the Spokane medical community,” said Dennis Dyck, associate dean for research at WSU Spokane. Along with Dr. David Hoak at Sacred Heart, Dyck was instrumental in the recruiting process that brought the two scientists to WSU Spokane.
Joining Dr. Julie Hanna, Shaffer is co-director of the Cytogenetics Laboratory at Sacred Heart Medical Center. Bejjani joins Dr. Marcy Hoffmann as co-director of the Molecular Diagnostic Laboratory. Their move here enables the expansion of the test menu of the clinical cytogenetics and molecular diagnostics departments at Sacred Heart, operated in cooperation with Pathology Associates Medical Laboratory. The laboratories offer full-service cytogenetic and FISH (fluorescent in situ hybridization) analysis, molecular DNA diagnostics, and clinical consultation.
“We’re very proud to partner with WSU in bringing this world-class expertise to Spokane,” noted Mike Wilson, president and chief operating officer of Sacred Heart Medical Center.
Bejjani and Shaffer bring with them a research team supported by their grants and funding from SHMC, and anticipate the addition of more staff. Initially their team includes four research associates and technicians. Four more are anticipated to arrive later this year, including investigators from Argentina, Italy, and Poland. They will conduct their research in the new lab facilities of the Health Sciences Building at Riverpoint.
Bejjani and Shaffer have formed a company, Signature Genomic Services, which will develop a chip to be used for cytogenetic diagnostics.
Bejjani describes it as a diagnostic application of equipment that to this point has been used only in high-end research labs. “Right now, cytogenetic analysis is a time-consuming and labor-intensive process that involves technicians reading chromosomes as if they are looking at a shelf full of books to see if the books have any damage. All you can see is whether any of the covers are damaged or missing. You cannot evaluate what is inside the books from that angle. Our technology lets them see if any of the pages of the books are missing, which provides far more detail than the current technology.”
Shaffer added, “Bassem and I each bring our own expertise to this company, which make us a good team.”
Even before moving to Spokane, the two scientists worked with the Spokane Intercollegiate Research and Technology Institute (SIRTI) to submit a Small Business Innovation Research grant to the National Institutes of Health. The grant would support testing and development of their product, a biological chip that will enable highly detailed analysis of chromosomes. Shaffer stated, “We were delighted to find something like SIRTI right here on campus—that was a bonus.” Notification on the $100,000 SBIR application should come from NIH in late November.
As for why the two moved their families to Spokane, “The quality of life in Spokane was a major factor in my decision,” said Shaffer. “It all started with the Sacred Heart ad for a co-director of their cytogenetics lab. I was committed to continuing my research program, so the presence of a major research university right here in town was a necessary part of the package. This was an easy transition for us because our research lab facilities in the Health Sciences Building are state-of-the-art.”
She continued, “Couple all that with a great place to raise children and the opportunities of an urban area without congestion; you had a package we couldn’t resist. I’m delighted to come back to the Inland Northwest to be part of a tremendously exciting opportunity as the community develops its health science research agenda.” Shaffer is originally from the Tri-Cities.
Bejjani said, “The opportunity here to build a genetics program so that families no longer have to leave the area for treatment is outstanding. Our research plan fits with the future as we understand it for Spokane’s medical and research community, and that is to link what we learn to real humans, to translate our research into practice that improves quality of life. When I saw that I could do that here, at a scale where I know my work has a direct impact, and raise my children in a friendly community of a size that is welcoming to families, I decided to join Lisa in the move.”
He added, “It’s important to me to connect my research with children and families. As a clinical geneticist, I plan to practice in Spokane. I will work with area practitioners to diagnose, coordinate care, anticipate the course of development of a child’s condition, and counsel the patient and family.”
Bill Gray, WSU Spokane campus dean and executive officer, said, “To have not one, but two, such outstanding investigators choose Spokane is a real coup. With their international reputations, they could have chosen to go not just anywhere in the country, but anywhere in the world. These are the kinds of efforts you will see more of as we develop the Medical Research Institute to bring together university researchers and the medical community.”
Gray serves on the board of INHS and chairs the board of Empire Health Services, which operates Deaconess Hospital and the Valley Hospital Medical Center. He added, “Spokane’s hospitals all win when we can add to the treatment options available in the area, especially with people of the caliber of Lisa and Bassem.”