Multidisciplinary Researcher-Physician Earns Society’s Highest Honor

Michal Toborek, M.D., Ph.D., Leonard M. Miller Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, received the Wybran Award at the Society of NeuroImmune Pharmacology’s 20th annual meeting in New Orleans. The highest honor bestowed by the Society, the award recognizes Toborek for his scientific contributions that have preserved and expanded the field of neuroimmune pharmacology.

“I am deeply honored to receive the award named after such a great person, citizen, and researcher as Dr. Wybran was, and to add my name to a distinguished list of previous awardees,” said Toborek, who is also Vice Chair for Research. “I am deeply grateful to my mentors and to all my students and postdoctoral fellows, whose tireless work generated the foundation for this award. This recognition will further motivate me to excel in research in the field of neuroimmunology.”

The award is named after the late Joseph Wybran, M.D., a world-renowned Belgian immunologist whose seminal contributions through the 1970s and 1980s helped integrate the fields of neurology and immunology. Wybran’s particular field of expertise was the interaction of opium-based drugs with human lymphocytes (white blood cells, which are responsible for immunity defenses). A measure of his impact was a paper he wrote in 1979 for the Journal of Immunology that became the most cited article in the field during the early ‘80s. A Holocaust survivor and active member of Belgium’s community of some 30,000 Jews, he also was active in cancer research and early efforts to find a cure for AIDS, helping set the stage for the clinical development of immunomodulators.

At the peak of his career, Wybran was shot to death, presumably by terrorists, in the parking lot of the Erasmus Hospital of the Université libre de Bruxelles, where he was chief of immunology, hematology and transfusions.

The Wybran Award was created to memorialize his scientific prestige and serve as a reminder of his leading contributions that underpin the Society, as well as recognize scientists of his caliber.

“Joe was a visionary mentor and his work to link neuroscience and immunology was highly impactful,” said Pascal J. Goldschmidt, M.D., Senior Vice President for Medical Affairs and Dean of the Miller School and CEO of UHealth. “He had trained at UCSF as a young scientist, and when we began to see patients at Erasmus Hospital of the Université libre de Bruxelles with severe infections and collapsed immune defense, he was the one who told me to go to the U.S. to learn more about the condition, which turned out to be HIV/AIDS.”

“The fact that Michal has received the award has a special meaning to me. Notably, he is an outstanding scientist of the Miller School of Medicine, but he has also reconnected my career with an important mentor, Joe Wyban.”

Toborek, like Wybran, is a highly interdisciplinary researcher who has made numerous vital contributions to the fields of neurovirology, neuropharmacology and molecular biology, among others.

Recognized for his studies on the effects of environmental, infectious, and behavioral factors on the integrity and functions of the blood-brain barrier, Toborek has enriched our understanding of the involvement of the blood-brain barrier in pathomechanisms of cerebrovascular disorders and neurodegenerative disorders. This includes the development of brain metastases, one of the leading causes of cancer-related morbidity and mortality, which occur in 30 to 40 percent of all systemic malignancies and contribute to an estimated 200,000 new brain cancer cases annually – a number that is expected to increase dramatically in the coming years.

Toborek and his team have uncovered how the adhesive and chemotactic properties of brain endothelium can influence transendothelial migration of tumor cells into the brain and found that moderate to vigorous exercise is a powerful means to reduce metastatic cancer incidence.

“Consistent with our interest in the blood-brain barrier pathology, our research is specially focused on the mechanisms of tumor cell extravasation into the brain,” Toborek explained. “The central hypothesis of our research is that exercise protects against the development of blood-borne brain metastases by increasing antioxidant capacity and modulating redox-regulated responses in the capillary endothelium.”

Toborek also is helping shed light on the cerebrovascular mechanisms involved in HIV-induced amyloid deposition.

More than half of all HIV-infected people in the United States are projected to be over the age of 50 by 2015. While normal aging is associated with brain amyloid beta accumulation (Aβ), levels are further increased during HIV infection. Little is known about this phenomenon, Toborek says, adding that this lack of knowledge carries important negative health implications for older patients whose Aβ accumulation may contribute to the development of HIV-1-associated neurocognitive disorder.

“Another highly interdisciplinary area of our research focuses on the interplay between HIV-1 and Aβ at the blood-brain barrier, which could lead to significant advances in treatments for patients with HIV,” Toborek said.

Toborek and his team also are making great strides in treating the serious health and psychiatric conditions associated with using methamphetamine, a highly addictive drug for which there is no effective pharmacological treatment to address the neurotoxicity or dependency its use induces. In 2013, Toborek led a group of researchers who discovered a new mechanism in the disruption of the blood-brain barrier integrity by methamphetamine, opening the door to a potentially effective therapy.

“I am very proud of Dr. Toborek’s achievements and, in particular, for being the recipient of the 2014 Joe Wybran Award,” said Sylvia Daunert, Ph.D., Pharm.D., M.S., the Lucille P. Markey Chair of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Associate Director of the Dr. John T. Macdonald Foundation Biomedical Nanotechnology Institute. “The Award is testimony to the extraordinary quality of science stemming from the creative and tireless work of Dr. Toborek and his team. It is truly an honor to count him as a colleague and invaluable member of our department and the Miller School of Medicine.”

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