What’s the Name of This Department?

Published by David B. Roth, MD, PhD, on July 01, 2015

Our Dean has asked me to come up with a strategic plan for investment in research in our Department. With the help of our faculty, I have made considerable progress and we have articulated a very clear mission: “to become an exemplar of the Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Department of the future.”

As part of the strategic planning process, I created a slide that showed the major research interests of our Department, based upon total grant expenditures in each area. The research themes that emerged are diverse: Neurodegenerative Diseases, Aging, Immunotherapy and Cellular Therapeutics, Immunology, Gene Therapy, DNA Vaccines, and Complement.

I made a slide with these themes (see figure above), and showed it at our most recent Faculty Lunch, asking the question: “What’s the name of this Department?” I didn’t get any answers, perhaps because it’s difficult to come up with an overarching theme for our research interests. Not that there has to be one, of course. We have been extraordinarily successful pursuing this diversified strategy.

In fact, this year we are ranked #1 in the nation in NIH research dollars among Pathology departments. Our total NIH portfolio, according to the NIH Reporter tool, is $53.6 million. This makes our research enterprise larger than that of more than half of the Schools of Medicine in the US. (In other words, Pathology and Laboratory Medicine would rank 60th out of about 140 medical schools).

Nevertheless, times are changing, research dollars are harder to come by, and translational science has become a dominant paradigm. One of the key features of our strategic plan for the Department is to fill some gaps in our research portfolio in a thoughtful way. I believe that a significant fraction of our research efforts should resonate with our clinical work.

In my view, one of the reasons why many long-established Pathology (and Laboratory Medicine) Departments have (or had) significant research portfolios in Immunology is because, years ago, discoveries in immunology were revitalizing the clinical practice of pathology (serology, tissue typing, blood typing, monoclonal antibodies, flow cytometry, immunohistochemistry, and so on). You couldn’t practice pathology without being impacted by the advent of these new tools, which spurred innumerable advances in our understanding of the classification and pathogenesis of human disease.

While basic and translational immunology clearly remain of paramount importance (full disclosure: I am a card-carrying immunologist), new tools in the realms of ‘omics and informatics are revolutionizing the practice of pathology and laboratory medicine. Initial efforts using these technologies are largely focused on cancer, but these tools will quickly spread to all of our clinical disciplines. We need to make sure that we have talent and intellectual capital in these areas.

Indeed, cancer and biomedical informatics are not yet very well represented in our portfolio. Going forward, we should aim to maintain many of our traditional strengths, with a new focus on investment in the fields of cancer, ‘omics in discovery and diagnostics, informatics and medical informatics. In this way, we should be able to achieve synergies between our clinical work and our research efforts, much like the early days of the application of immunology to diagnostics.


David B. Roth, MD, PhD, is the Simon Flexner Professor and Chair of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these blog columns are those of the authors or other attributed individuals and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Department, Penn Medicine, or the University of Pennsylvania. Health information is provided for educational purposes and should not be used as a source of medical advice or diagnosis.