Rodney D. Newberry, MDthe Dr. Nicholas V. Costrini Professor of Gastroenterology and Inflammatory Bowel Disease at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, has been named a William H. Danforth Washington University Physician-Scientist Scholar. The program, established in 2022, is aimed at supporting the careers of outstanding physician-scientists whose work is truly pioneering and changing the field. Newberry is the third physician-researcher to be named a Danforth scholar.
Washington University has a long history of developing and nurturing the careers of physician-scientists. Because of their work in the clinic, together with extensive research training, physician-scientists often are at the forefront of solving complex medical problems, which can lead to new approaches to diagnosing and treating disease.
Newberry is a gastroenterologist whose research focuses on defining how immune dysfunction in the gut leads to inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. These illnesses affect 1.6 million people in the US alone. He studies how cells that line the intestine — a first line of defense against invading, harmful pathogens — can co-exist with trillions of friendly gut microbes and foreign food proteins. His studies have helped uncover the mechanisms by which gut immune cells mount an inflammatory response against the body’s own cells, a process that can jump-start the development of inflammatory bowel diseases.
“Rodney’s work has led to new insights into how a relatively poorly understood type of epithelial cell contributes to regulation of host-microbe interactions in the gut, and expertise to the study of gut immunity, and his accomplishments represent the epitome of what we aspire to as physician-scientists,” said David H. Perlmutter, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs, the George and Carol Bauer Dean of the School of Medicine and the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Distinguished Professor. “He is exploring new approaches that will improve the care for patients with inflammatory bowel diseases. In naming him a Danforth scholar we are recognizing his outstanding contributions, and I’m extremely pleased that the Danforth WashU Physician-Scientist Investigator Initiative will help advance his work.”
Newberry is a principal investigator on six grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that are focused on exploring the immune system in the gut. The grants fund innovative studies of the behavior of specialized cells called goblet cells that produce mucus in the gut and form a protective barrier against invading pathogens. His research also has shown that goblet cells play a role in chaperoning food antigens in the gut so that the immune system doesn’t mount an attack. The work suggests that such cells are potential targets for new therapies against inflammatory bowel diseases, celiac disease and food allergies, all of which are caused by an overactive immune system.
Newberry and his colleagues discovered that goblet cells can deliver signals to the immune system through a process called Goblet-cell associated Antigen Passages (GAPs). His work has shown that infections can inhibit the way that GAPs form, tamping down the immune response.
In addition, he is studying how the inappropriate inhibition of GAPs by microbes and pathogens might predispose people to diseases, including inflammatory bowel disease and metabolic syndrome. Newberry also demonstrated a key role for breast milk in the prevention of sepsis in premature babies. His team found that a molecule in breast milk activates receptors on intestinal cells that keep dangerous gut bacteria from migrating into the bloodstream.
A decade ago, Newberry’s lab also helped to develop a novel imaging technique that allowed scientists to watch the inner workings of the intestine in a living mouse in real time. Such imaging allowed Newberry and his colleagues to learn how goblet cells behave in the intestine.
“To advance his research, Dr. Newberry has developed new approaches to study how the gut protects itself from pathogens,” said Wayne M. Yokoyama, MDdirector of the Division of Physician-Scientists, the Sam J. Levin and Audrey Loew Levin Professor of Arthritis Research, and an associate dean. “He has revolutionized the understanding of the gut’s immune responses by developing ways to visualize what was not possible to see previously.”
The Physician-Scientist Investigator Initiative targets MD and MD/PhD researchers who have an established track record of exceptional research contributions and funding and are associate or full professors. The School of Medicine has committed $40 million over the next decade to be used as part of highly competitive packages for such candidates. With seed funding from this commitment, the school’s clinical departments aim to attract and retain the most talented physician-scientists in the US and abroad.
“Dr. Newberry brings a physician’s perspective to his research and a researcher’s perspective to caring for his patients,” said Victoria J. Fraser, MD, the Adolphus Busch Professor and head of the Department of Medicine. “Both are steeped in intellectual curiosity to move the field forward.”
Newberry earned his bachelor’s degree in biology from Washington University and his medical degree from the School of Medicine before joining the faculty in 1999.
William H. Danforth, MD, who served as chancellor of Washington University from 1971 to 1995, was the inspiration for the physician-scientist initiative. Danforth was a cardiologist who joined the School of Medicine faculty in 1957 after training in medicine and pediatrics at what is now Barnes-Jewish Hospital, and St. Louis Children’s Hospital. He rose through the ranks at the School of Medicine before taking on administrative duties as vice chancellor for medical affairs. Along the way, he conducted basic research in the laboratory of Nobel laureates Carl and Gerty Cori. During his chancellorship, Washington University significantly expanded resources for scholarship and scientific discovery, and completed its transition from a local college to a national research university.
“I am honored and humbled to be named a Danforth Physician-Scientist Scholar,” Newberry said. “Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis is one of the premier biomedical research institutions in the world and has a long and rich history of cultivating physician-scientists who have advanced the field of medicine. To be considered alongside these individuals and to be formally named one of them is a highlight of my career.”