One on One With . . . Dr. Amir Tamiz
Editor’s Note: This is an occasional Reflections series, and this issue features Siena Heights chemistry graduate Dr. Amir Tamiz ’92, who heads the Division of Translational Research for the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes (NINDS) in Washington, D.C..
Could you describe your current role and some of the duties and responsibilities you have on a day-to-day basis?
“I work at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), which is focused to seek fundamental knowledge about the brain and nervous system and to use that knowledge to reduce the burden of neurological disease. The NINDS is one of 27 institutes at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Within NINDS, I head the Division of Translational Research, which is tasked with accelerating the preclinical discovery and development of new therapeutic interventions for neurological disorders and stroke. We provide funding and resources (approximately $100 million annually) through grants, cooperative agreements and contracts to academic and industry researchers to advance basic research technologies, devices and therapeutic programs to first in human clinical trials and commercialization, with the hope to get therapies for patients who need them. DTR helps academic and industry researchers create a bridge through which discoveries made in the lab lead to new and improved medical treatments and options for patient care. We offer a variety of programs that support the design, implementation, and management of research activities critical to translational challenges in the treatment of neurological disease and stroke.
My day-to-day responsibilities vary—on some days I’m participating in conferences about advances in neuroscience or taking part in a committee to identify the most promising grant applications for funding. On other days, I’m working with the team at NINDS to develop training programs to help researchers learn about translational research.”
How did you get this position, and how long have you been the program director?
“I’ve always thought that medicine was an important calling, and even considered going to medical school after graduating from Siena Heights and ended up studying chemistry more deeply. I thought that I might also be able to help people by developing the medicines instead of a doctor who prescribes the medicine. After I finished grad school and my post-doc, I joined biotech and spent the next many years working with other scientists to progress potential therapeutics to clinical trials. Through my tenure in biotech, I worked on some very exciting therapy development projects such as cancer, diabetes and celiac disease.
I joined the NIH in 2012—little over 20 years after I graduated from Siena Heights—and I was able to bring my experience in drug development to help with their initiative to support more translational research that would help to ‘translate’ progress in basic research toward treatments that can help patients. A few examples of projects that we currently fund are discovery and development of treatment for stroke, Epilepsy, traumatic brain injury and Muscular Dystrophy, to name a few. I was promoted to Director of the Division of Translational research in 2016.”
What attracted you to the area of neurology?
“The brain is a fascinating topic. I started working on the brain in graduate school—my dissertation was focused on thinking about how to deliver therapeutics to the brain and how to develop treatments to help patients with Parkinson’s disease. The body does its best to protect the brain from toxins by keeping the blood separated from brain fluid by a membrane we call the blood brain barrier. This barrier also makes it more difficult to deliver medicines to the brain. I tried to optimize the design of a molecule to more efficiently traverse that barrier. And, thus, my fascination with the brain deepened.”
How much of your current position is that of a scientist, and how much is being an administrator?
“My current job is administrative—although I leverage my first-hand experience of working in the lab for many years and my learnings from dealing with challenges of discovery and development in order to be effective. It’s also a critical part of my role to stay abreast of the most critical patient needs in neurological disease, as well as the latest scientific advances in basic neuroscience and progress in developing therapeutics.”
What are some of the significant programs/advancements your organization has made? What accomplishment(s) are you the most proud of?
“There are so many advancements—here is a listing, in no particular order or priority:
- We recently funded a small start-up company that developed a compact and portable device with a spoon, soup spoon or fork attachment that detects tremors and uses tiny motors to stabilize the utensil.
- One of our most recent investigators at Massachusetts General Hospital has entered into a partnership agreement with biotechnology company to develop a treatment for rare genetic disorders resulting from pre-mRNA splicing defects such as familial dysautonomia.
- A current participant of our program announced that it has entered a worldwide license and partnership agreement with Astra-Zeneca to develop a therapeutic for smoking cessation.
- One of our investigators has received FDA approval of their Investigational New Drug (IND) application to begin clinical trials for a drug to treat and prevent Alzheimer’s disease (AD).
- Another small company we fund is moving an experimental new drug that may improve memory, into the first human clinical trial.
- We have a small, Ohio-based start-up Great Lakes NeuroTechnologies, develop a sensor worn on the index finger and an app to continuously measure Parkinson’s symptoms such as tremor, bradykinesia (slowed movements) and dyskinesia (involuntary movements).
- Another current participant has recently received FDA approval for a supplemental new drug application for the antiepileptic drug lacosamide as a monotherapy for treating partial-onset seizures in epilepsy patients aged 17 years or older.
- And another current investigator recently announced development of a promising oral medication intended to slow or halt the progression of “dry” Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD).”
Walk through your career, from the time you left Siena Heights until present? In other words, what were some of the stops along the way to your current position?
“I graduated from Siena Heights College with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. I then went to University of Oregon to work with Professor John Keana. John took me on as a summer student, and after working with him for a few months, I realized that I had discovered my love for research and medicine. I then went to Georgetown University as a postdoctoral fellow and worked with Prof. Alan Kozikowski, working on understanding how neurons in the brain are excited and how they are effected in depression and addiction. I decided to join biotech as a research scientist and worked through the ranks into management. After about 10 years working at three biotech companies, I joined Firststage Bioventure and helped start companies focused on very early stages of therapeutic and device development. I joined NIH in the fall of 2012.”
How did your time at Siena Heights shape you? What were some of your more memorable experiences (and people)?
“Above all, I value the friendships that I made at Siena Heights. I enjoyed the culture of small school having time to spend time getting to know people in depth—I enjoyed meeting so many people with backgrounds so different from my own and have enjoyed staying close to many of my friends since then. Siena Heights taught me that having strong personal relationships is what makes life rich and success possible.”
What advice would you give a current Siena Heights science major?
“If you love science, hit the books. Take classes to diversify your understanding of different fields in science and challenge yourself to do projects in the lab. Take advantage of the unique opportunity that Siena provides by being small and having direct access to all faculty to get to know them in person. Ask tough questions, and ask them to mentor you throughout your tenure. Understanding the concept of experimental design and hypothesis-generating research is at the heart of a good scientific foundation. Having the opportunity to work with instructors at Siena on a one-on-one basis is a truly a gift. And to my fellow student-athletes, it is truly unique to have an opportunity to have science and sports to be practically across the street from each other. The discipline you accept to balance athletics and books will serve you well long-term. You will be well-versed to learn teamwork and leadership skills on the athletic field, as science is never done in a silo, and teamwork is essential for success in your careers.”
What are some of the most rewarding parts of your job? What are some of the more challenging ones?
“There are so many things I like about my job. I am always energized to be working with so many amazingly talented and dedicated people. It’s also important to me that we are working on problems that affect all of us and our families and can make the world a better place. We have a front row seat for amazing science and discovery. It is really a privilege to be allowed to play this role.”
What else do you hope to accomplish in your career?
“My recent promotion has been a big honor, and I’m really focused on how to be help my division be most effective. Reducing the burden of neurological disease by helping to progress treatments for those who suffer from it is an important mission.”
What do you like to do outside of work? Family? Hobbies?
“My wife and I are raising our two daughters, who are 4 and 8—and I’m very involved with the household and with them, including coaching my older daughter’s soccer team. I am still playing soccer a few times a week myself. With any other free time, I work on improving myself (science and leadership), my marriage (it takes work!), and my home (I really enjoy home renovations and gardening).”
Anything else you would like to add?
“I’m really nostalgic about working late evenings in the lab in graduate school. I really miss putting on my headphones, doing experiments and working away—it really felt special. It was a great experience, and I was lucky to have worked for a graduate advisor who I hold the highest admiration for because he allowed me to reach for the skies and made that work feel very significant.”