St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital announced today that Richard S. Finkel, M.D., a leading pediatric neurologist, has joined St. Jude to lead the creation of a Center for Experimental Neurotherapeutics. Finkel’s arrival signifies an expansion of the institution’s pediatric catastrophic diseases into neurologic disorders.
Finkel has served as chief of neurology at Nemours Children’s Hospital in Orlando and is a professor of neurology at the University of Central Florida College of Medicine. He joined the St. Jude faculty March 16. Finkel will also have privileges at Memphis‐based Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital and will have an adjunct faculty appointment in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. The three organizations will partner in the creation of a Neuroscience Research Consortium investigating treatments for children with devastating neuromuscular diseases.
“I feel privileged to be given this opportunity to join the St. Jude family and pursue the hospital’s mission to advance cures, and means of prevention, for pediatric catastrophic disease, with a new focus on children afflicted with neurologic diseases,” Finkel said “For most of these pediatric neurologic diseases, current treatments are either ineffective, inadequate or unavailable. St. Jude is unparalleled in having so many world-class strengths that can be harnessed in pursuit of new therapies. This opportunity was simply too good to pass up. I look forward to accelerating new and innovative treatments coming out of the laboratory, and moving these into the neurology clinic, so that many children can benefit.”
For decades, St. Jude clinicians and researchers have sought cures for catastrophic childhood diseases such as cancer, sickle cell and HIV. Among the most burdensome of catastrophic childhood diseases are neurological diseases. Yet, despite their high prevalence, opportunities for developing therapies were limited by poor understanding of the cause of most diseases.
In 2019, James R. Downing, M.D., president and CEO of St. Jude, announced a blue-sky initiative in pediatric translational neuroscience to build on a strong foundation of discovery science in cell biology and neuroscience. Downing committed to adding faculty, staff and research capabilities in pediatric neurologic disorders. The effort builds on the work of J. Paul Taylor, M.D., Ph.D., chair of the St. Jude Department of Cell and Molecular Biology and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, and others in his department as well as the Departments of Genetics and Developmental Neurobiology.
The new center will include a basic research arm, the Center for Pediatric Neurological Disease Research, which will be led by Peter McKinnon, Ph.D., of the Department of Genetics. Finkel will lead the clinical arm, the Center for Experimental Neurotherapeutics, while Taylor serves as director of the entire pediatric neurologic disorders initiative.
“About 1 in 6 children has some form of neurologic disability – ranging from neurodevelopmental or movement disorders to neuromuscular diseases,” Downing said. “The most tractable of these neurological disorders are those where the underlying genetic defect is identified. Our strong foundation at St. Jude in basic science, especially our expertise in neuroscience and genetics, creates a new opportunity for researchers to push the boundaries of treatment in this area.”
Taylor said: “When I started to develop the translational neuroscience initiative, I spent months talking with dozens of experts from academia, industry and patient advocacy groups about who might be suitable to head up the launch of experimental therapeutics at St. Jude. The first name on everyone’s lips was Richard Finkel, the indispensable doctor in the development of treatment for spinal muscular atrophy.”
Finkel is a leading international expert in spinal muscular atrophy and played a vital role in developing the first successful therapy for this disease, which was the leading genetic killer of children. He brings to St. Jude nearly 30 years of experience in translational research into the biology and treatment of neurologic disorders in addition to SMA, including Duchenne muscular dystrophy, Pompe disease and other neurogenetic diseases of children. He has been an international leader in organizing key clinical trials for neuromuscular diseases.
Finkel will spend his first several months at St. Jude planning and developing the clinical program to complement the basic science discovery program. He anticipates the Center for Experimental Neurotherapeutics will accept patients to participate in clinical trials at St. Jude later this year.
Finkel has served as neurology chief at Nemours since 2012. Prior to that, he held faculty, hospital and administrative appointments at Children’s Hospital in Denver, where he co-directed the neuromuscular clinic, and at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where he directed the neuromuscular program for more than a decade.
Finkel earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Washington and Jefferson College, and a medical degree at Washington University, St. Louis. He completed his Pediatric and Neurology residency training at Boston Children’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and completed neuromuscular and electromyography training at the Children’s Hospital, Beth Israel, the Lahey Clinic, Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
He is a member of numerous professional and scientific societies, including being elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Neurology and the American Neurological Association, Muscular Dystrophy Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics. He recently co-edited the standard textbook in Pediatric Neurology. Finkel also has decades of experience supervising residents and fellows and serving as a mentor and teacher, roles he will continue in the Memphis medical community. Finkel will spend 80% of his time at St. Jude and 20% of his time in clinical duties at Le Bonheur.
Terri Finkel, M.D., Ph.D., a pediatric rheumatologist married to Richard Finkel, will also join St. Jude and Le Bonheur. She will spend 80% of her time in clinical duties at Le Bonheur and 20% of her time at St. Jude. She will also hold an appointment at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. Terri Finkel held key executive roles at Nemours, including chairing the department of pediatrics and serving as chief scientific officer. She led the establishment of PedsAcademy, a partnership between the University of Central Florida and Nemours to provide high-tech schooling to hospitalized children.
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