Harald Sontheimer, a professor of neurobiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and a nationally recognized neuroscientist and expert on the biology of glial cells, the brain’s most abundant cell type, will direct a university-wide neuroscience initiative being launched within Virginia Tech's College of Science.
Established last year, the neuroscience initiative is an interdisciplinary program based in the College of Science's Academy of Integrated Science. Starting this fall, undergraduate students at Virginia Tech may declare neuroscience as their academic major. The initiative will also include the recruitment of multiple new neuroscience faculty members to Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus.
In addition to his appointment as a professor in the College of Science, Sontheimer will join the faculty at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. There he will oversee his own research laboratory and direct the institute’s new Glial Biology in Health, Disease, and Cancer Center and those of other new faculty members who will be recruited to the center.
“The recruitment of Dr. Harald Sontheimer represents a significant development for Virginia Tech,” said Lay Nam Chang, dean of the College of Science. “The new neuroscience initiative has attracted a huge amount of interest among students and faculty. Dr. Sontheimer will now lead this effort with a goal of making our program the destination for students, faculty and scholars from all over the world who wish to study neuroscience.
The Virginia Tech program will lay the foundation for an understanding of the workings of the human neurological system, from the cellular level, to an appreciation to all that is essential to the human mind, Chang said.
“It will therefore stretch from biological foundations, to cognition, leading to decision making, risk assessment and management, philosophical thinking, and creativity,” added Chang. “As such, it is unique among all such programs that are extant. It will also involve scholarship spanning disciplines across the university. Dr. Sontheimer's passion for teaching, research, and his breadth of scholarship are crucial for providing the leadership for this enterprise.”
For the past two decades at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Sontheimer has led several major programs, including the Civitan International Research Center on Intellectual Disabilities and the world’s first Center for Glial Biology in Medicine.
Sontheimer is credited with making foundational discoveries on the functional properties of glial cells in the brain, including the localization and mechanisms of a range of receptors and ion channels that had previously been thought to exist only on nerve cells.
Sontheimer’s work on the fundamental properties of glial cells led to his discovery of a major new therapeutic approach for the treatment of glioblastoma, the deadliest and most prevalent primary brain tumor in humans.
He identified from scorpion venom a naturally occurring compound, chlorotoxin, which has the peculiar ability to interact specifically with a protein expressed only on the surface of glial cells that have transformed to the malignant state. He determined that this molecule could prevent the spread of brain tumor cells beyond the original site of malignancy.
Building on this research, Sontheimer founded a company, TransMolecular, Inc. (later acquired by Morphotek Inc.), which successfully synthesized the chlorotoxin molecule for use in human clinical trials. The neuroscience biotechnology company received several patents and went on to lead a series of clinical trials.
At Virginia Tech, Sontheimer will continue his research to develop new interventions and therapeutics and to investigate the mechanisms underlying glial cell function in health, normal brain development, and disease, including brain tumors. He will collaborate with research teams already studying glioblastoma at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and across the Blacksburg campus.
“We are extremely fortunate to have recruited Dr. Sontheimer to Virginia Tech,” said Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and Virginia Tech’s associate provost for health sciences. “He is truly one of the pioneers of basic neuroscience, and someone who has contributed profoundly to the treatment of a devastating human disease. He is also a passionate, dedicated, and highly innovative educator, as well as a true scholar of the highest integrity. He inspires confidence, trust, and enthusiasm in all who work with him.”
Also instrumental in recruiting Sontheimer were Kirby Deater-Deckard, a professor of psychology who has served as the neuroscience program director since its inception; Ignacio Moore, an associate professor of biological sciences who has been involved with development of the neuroscience program; and J. P. Morgan, director of the Academy of Integrated Science and associate dean for strategic initiatives in the College of Science.
Beyond his research and scientific leadership, Sontheimer is also renowned for his innovative teaching and curriculum development for undergraduate, graduate, and medical students.
He is a past director of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s interdepartmental graduate program in cell, molecular, and developmental biology, and he runs the university’s highly acclaimed undergraduate neuroscience course in brain disorders. Sontheimer recently used a sabbatical to write a comprehensive textbook for undergraduate neuroscience students on diseases of the nervous system.
“Harald Sontheimer brings the all-important triad of innovative research, memorable teaching, and interdisciplinary excellence to our university,” said Mark G. McNamee, senior vice president and provost of Virginia Tech. “His enthusiasm for our mission is matched only by our enthusiasm for his scientific and educational talents.”
Sontheimer earned his doctoral degree in cell biology and biophysics from the University of Heidelberg in 1989. He undertook postdoctoral training at the Yale School of Medicine, where he later served as an assistant professor of neurology and neurobiology from 1991 to 1994.
Sontheimer serves on the scientific advisory boards of the Max Planck Society, The MIT Press, and CURE Epilepsy. He has published more than 150 original research articles, including recent ones in Nature and Nature Neuroscience Reviews, with a forthcoming article in Science Translational Medicine.
The Academy of Integrated Science, which Chang established in 2013, now encompasses undergraduate degree programs in computational modeling and data analytics; nanoscience; neuroscience; and systems biology. It is also the home to the Integrated Science Curriculum and the Division of Science, Technology, and Law.
Dedicated to its motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Virginia Tech takes a hands-on, engaging approach to education, preparing scholars to be leaders in their fields and communities. As the commonwealth’s most comprehensive university and its leading research institution, Virginia Tech offers 240 undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 31,000 students and manages a research portfolio of $513 million. The university fulfills its land-grant mission of transforming knowledge to practice through technological leadership and by fueling economic growth and job creation locally, regionally, and across Virginia.