Dr. Vanda Lennon
Mayo Clinic Labs @ Work
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I was recruited to Mayo Clinic in 1978 to establish the Neuroimmunology Research Laboratory within the Department of Neurology with a joint appointment in Immunology.
Vanda A. Lennon, M.D., Ph.D.
After medical school in Australia, I traveled to Canada for internal medicine residency, then back to Australia where I earned my Ph.D. degree in immunology. I then immigrated to the U.S. as a National Multiple Sclerosis Society postdoctoral fellow at the Salk Institute in San Diego, California, and was subsequently an assistant and associate professor. There, my colleagues and I established and validated animal models of myasthenia gravis, an autoimmune disorder that disrupts communication between nerves and muscles, and we developed a diagnostic blood test for the disease. That work led to collaboration with clinical investigators at Mayo Clinic. Anticipating that other neurological disorders might have an autoimmune basis, I gladly accepted Mayo Clinic’s invitation to relocate my research program to Rochester at the world’s number one neurology department.
In 1981, Dr. Michael O’Sullivan — the visionary chair of the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology (DLMP) who established what is now known as Mayo Clinic Laboratories — invited me to establish the Neuroimmunology Clinical Laboratory. In 1989, Dr. O’Sullivan welcomed my co-appointment to DLMP and gave me resources to create a Neuroimmunology Development Laboratory complementing my research laboratory to expedite translation of our basic discoveries to novel blood tests aiding neurological diagnosis. We really got rolling after that since my clinical translational activities were no longer entirely dependent on a research budget from the National Institutes of Health and similar agencies.
Having passed the baton for the clinical and development lab activities in 2015, I remain director of the Neuroimmunology Research Laboratory, now based in DLMP and closely affiliated with the departments of Neurology and Immunology. My five decades of research have addressed plasma membrane channels and neurotransmitter receptors that are targets of autoimmunity afflicting the neuromuscular junction, somatic, and autonomic nerves, and the enteric and central nervous systems. In parallel, we have investigated corresponding protein antigens in cancers that sometimes initiate the anti-tumor immune responses that manifest as neurological autoimmunity. My continuing research is focused on astrocytes and their interaction with other glial cells and neurons in the context of neurological autoimmunity. In this endeavor I am most fortunate to have as collaborators my co-principal investigator, Dr. LongJun Wu, and Dr. Claudia Lucchinetti, a former mentee who is now the first female chair of Mayo Clinic’s Neurology Department.
I think it would surprise people to know that innovative research is rarely accomplished by focusing on one specific question or direction. If you’re really interested in discovery, you need to go where the research leads, and that’s usually not where you think it’s going to go. Directing researchers to remain narrowly dedicated to only one area of study is unlikely to yield the answers you’re looking for. The team-based research that Mayo Clinic has embarked on helps broaden the focus, as does funding of investigator-initiated research. The biggest discoveries often come from unexpected places. We need to be open to those possibilities.
It’s not the research itself that I find most challenging, it’s the bureaucracy and the red tape you have to cut through to accomplish the research. The amount of paperwork to be done and hoops you’re required to jump through have increased exponentially since I began my research career. Unfortunately, it makes the research enterprise more expensive and wastes valuable resources that could be better dedicated to the important work we do.
My proudest achievement is having established North America’s first fellowship program in autoimmune neurology within Mayo Clinic’s Department of Neurology. Education-wise, I am presently enjoying interactions with my colleagues’ Ph.D. students and fellows. Research-wise, there’s always the next question to pursue, the next area of inquiry to tackle. That’s energizing. And right now, I’m very much enjoying being back at the bench. We have a small but very committed group of individuals in our lab — one of whom I’ve worked with since 1982. (He retired, but I convinced him to come back on a part-time basis.) I have a good team. This work has value, and it’s fun.
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