Leading the Way
By MELANIE KILGORE-HILL
Dr. Jeffrey Neul Joins VUMC as Kennedy Center Director
Vanderbilt's Kennedy Center has pioneered cutting-edge research in developmental disabilities for more than a half century. The center begins a new chapter this month with the arrival of child neurologist Jeffrey Neul, MD, PhD.
Previously division head of Child Neurology and vice chair for Developmental Neurosciences at the University of California, San Diego, Neul stepped into his new role of director of the Kennedy Center Aug. 1, bringing his vast expertise in genetic research to VUMC.
Originally from Chicago, Neul earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and his medical and doctorate degrees from the Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago. He then completed his residency and fellowship in child neurology at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital.
As one of the nation's foremost authorities on Rett syndrome, or RTT, Neul plans to continue his commitment to research and treatment of the diagnosis he first stumbled across quite by accident. "In 1999, I was finishing med school and wanted to go into child neurology and asked a professor what I should train for," Neul said. "He picked up a journal laying on a desk and read that a gene had just been found for Rett syndrome. The timing was serendipitous."
Diagnosed by a simple blood test, Rett syndrome is most often misdiagnosed as autism, cerebral palsy, or non-specific developmental delay found exclusively in girls. It affects roughly 5,000 U.S. families with 200 new cases diagnosed annually.
"The field became energized in 2007 when genetic work showed we might be able to reverse the course of the disease," Neul said. "It changed the way people thought about it."
Neul's 14-year stint at Baylor included involvement in one of the first industry sponsored clinical trials, and he looks forward to participation in the second phase at Vanderbilt. "We've seen a real change in attitudes and a lot more interest from the science and pharma industries for developing treatments," Neul said of the syndrome, which affects 1 in 10,000 live female births.
While general recognition of the disorder has increased, he said a fair amount of providers still struggle to recognize symptoms. In 2010, Neul helped establish clinical consensus criteria to try to simplify diagnosis of Rett syndrome. "The big thing is if you have a girl who's lost skills, like the ability to talk or use her hands, think about Rett syndrome," he said, noting the typical age of diagnosis is three years. "After a diagnosis is made, people may interpret the prognosis as gloomy, but there's a lot of opportunities for these children to improve their quality of life."
In his new role, Neul plans to split his time between providing clinical care for patients with Rett syndrome and other neurogenetic disorders and continuing his clinical research, which includes participation in a National Institutes of Health study he's been a part of since 2003.
Neul said he's eager to make a difference in developing ideas of tailoring care toward individuals with developmental disabilities. "The Kennedy Center has a long history of really capitalizing on behavioral and educational intervention for these disorders," he said. "I'm excited to see how we integrate those targeted interventions with more biomedical interventions, because the future is going to capitalize on the intersection of medical and biomedical."
As for his move to Nashville, Neul said it was an easy decision given the reputation of the center. "The Kennedy Center has a long-standing interest in all neurodevelopmental disorders and has been a leader nationally," he said. "This is an opportunity to be a part of that and help foster and enhance those ongoing efforts and to improve the lives if people with developmental disabilities."
While much of his own research is rooted in Rett syndrome, Neul said the Kennedy Center's mission is much broader than a single diagnosis. "There's a large group of individuals doing research and delivering care, and it's my job to foster and broaden those efforts and to recruit people who may not have previously been involved in research in these disorders," Neul said. "I'm very interested in making additional connections within other Vanderbilt departments that haven't previously worked on these discoveries but might have new approaches."