Excelling in one area would be enough of an accomplishment, but Lisa Shaffer and Bassem Bejjani are excelling in three: basic research, clinical work and a startup company on the side.

And the beauty of it is, they are doing it at WSU Spokane. Two years ago they were tenured faculty members at Baylor Medical College in Houston, home of one of the most prestigious and highly-funded genetic research programs in the country. They knew their work environment was top-tier and their research was flourishing. What they didn’t know was whether they could trade up in quality of life issues and still maintain their pioneering research and clinical work. Turns out they can.

They get clean air and four seasons, and eastern Washington gets world-class medical research, state-of-the-art patient care and private-sector jobs for skilled professionals.

“A lot of things needed to come together to make it happen,” said Dennis Dyck, director of WSU Spokane’s Health Research and Education Center and one of the people responsible for recruiting Shaffer and Bejjani. “I think it is best summarized by the word ‘partnership.’”That partnership is still a work in progress, Dyck said. But, he sees great potential for WSU to partner with others in the Spokane medical community to create an attractive environment for innovative and exciting researchers, even without a medical school nearby.

Bringing it all together

Simply put, Sacred Heart Medical Center was looking for a part-time director of its cytogenetics laboratory and Shaffer, a native of the Tri-Cities and a graduate of WSU, was looking for a way to move back to Washington. As director of the Kleberg Cytogenetics Laboratory at Baylor, she knew she’d be a good candidate for the job at Sacred Heart, but she needed a place to continue her research.

Dyck said WSU and Sacred Heart soon realized they could work together, with WSU providing the research facilities, support services and university appointments necessary to attract a tenured professor from a major research university. At the same time, Sacred Heart could provide the necessary clinical opportunities and compensation, including funding for researchers and technicians.

Suddenly an unlikely scenario seemed possible, and Shaffer and her husband were looking at rural property north of Spokane.

“I always wanted to live in Spokane,” she said, and laughed. “Don’t ask me why. I’ve just always been attracted to this part of the state.”

Bejjani, a native of Lebanon, had never thought about living in Spokane, but he was interested in leaving Houston. As medical director of the Kleberg Cytogenetics Laboratory, he worked closely with Shaffer. When he found out she was leaving, he made inquiries and discovered that he too could continue his work at WSU and Sacred Heart. In 2002, Shaffer became co-director of Sacred Heart’s cytogenetics laboratory and Bejjani became co-director of the molecular diagnostic laboratory.

Expertise in research, diagnosis

The cytogenetics lab analyzes various samples, from amniotic fluid to blood or tissue, to detect chromosomal abnormalities which may indicate risks for cancer, mental retardation or birth defects. The molecular diagnostics lab analyzes DNA samples to help diagnose a variety of genetic conditions, including cystic fibrosis and fragile X syndrome.

“We are in the business to provide information early,” Bejjani says. “There are a lot of options that go with early diagnosis and early treatment.”

Along with their clinical work, both are continuing their research in new labs in WSU’s Health Sciences Building with research faculty appointments within the School of Molecular Biosciences and the Basic Medical Sciences Program. Shaffer, whose research in Houston and Spokane has earned more than $3.2 million in grants, primarily from the National Institutes of Health, investigates the chromosomal basis of genetic disease. Bejjani has been awarded nearly $1.75 million to fund his research into the molecular mechanisms of hereditary eye disease. Much of his funding has come from the National Eye Institute, a division of the NIH.

In addition, they are partners in Signature Genomic Laboratories, a private genetic diagnostic testing company they started last year. Using their own patented microchip to screen for certain genetic diseases, they are able to detect certain chromosome abnormalities that traditional tests sometimes miss.

Not only does Shaffer and Bejjani’s work complement the work being done in Pullman on basic genetics and plant genetics, but it adds considerably to a burgeoning medical research center at WSU Spokane. The campus also conducts federally funded research in mental health, human development, sleep and performance, diabetes management and drug dependency treatment.

Back in Shaffer’s office in the Health Sciences Building at Riverpoint, papers are stacked on her desk and a cardboard box of grant applications from the March of Dimes is pushed in a corner, awaiting her consideration.

“It’s a huge amount of work,” she said, and smiled. Her first love is still research, she said, but right now she’s just taking things as they come.