Dr. Neal Thomas looks to expand Penn State Hershey’s clinical research in associate dean role
Dr. Neal Thomas has made research his life’s work.
The newly named associate dean for clinical research hopes to help Penn State Hershey’s clinical research mission grow. One reason he is vested in seeing the expansion of clinical research is because he was personally affected by it — twice.
“In 2002, my youngest son was born premature and was given a medicine called surfactant into his lungs to combat lung disease that can happen from prematurity,” Thomas, a professor of pediatrics and public health sciences, said.
Being a researcher involved with surfactant use in older children, and also studying the surfactant genes and their impact on young children with lung disease, he was aware of the early clinical trial literature treating premature lungs. The fact that his son benefited from that early work would strengthen Thomas’s research interest in surfactant for years to come.
“It probably saved his life, but it certainly affected his lungs so that he is completely healthy now,” Thomas said. ”That wouldn’t have happened if scientists and physicians hadn’t conducted the clinical research to get to that point.”
He personally benefited from clinical research last year after having a heart attack.
After having sudden chest pain during exercise, he received a drug-eluting stent in one of his coronary arteries in the Penn State Hershey catheterization lab. This type of stent, which releases a drug over time to prevent blockage, was familiar to him: he reviewed the clinical study protocols as a member of the college Institutional Review Board when Penn State Hershey was a study site. [Learn more about what an IRB is by clicking here.]
“Something that I reviewed and supported years ago, I was actually the recipient of the work that was done,” he said. “It certainly gives a personal view as to how important clinical research is.”
His focus in his new role will be three-fold.
First, he will oversee the multitude of clinical trials and, in doing so, hopes to improve the process flow to further the institution’s reputation and attract more industry-sponsored clinical trials.
“We know that there are university health centers that are viewed as leaders in clinical research, especially with industry-sponsored trials,” he said. “My role is to find out what they do and what we can do on our campus to enhance and expand what we already do well and strengthen our position.”
Thomas believes one role of a university health center is to assist in testing concepts developed by the biomedical industry to determine if those ideas can improve the care of patients.
“That’s how we are going to improve the outcome of the patients that we treat,” he said. “The university health center and industry relationship is very valuable.”
Penn State Hershey researchers will remain active with federally funded clinical research studies, many that deal with mechanisms of injury or disease, or that are trying to discover therapeutic targets for the disease. Thomas will support these extremely important trials and also focus on large interventional clinical trials that are difficult to fund without industry support.
Second, he will work to develop junior physician scientists — many of the clinicians recruited by Penn State Hershey who want to be involved in clinical research – through education and support.
“Part of why our faculty are here, at a university health center, is teaching and teaching doesn’t stop with residency,” he said.
Thomas believes the campus staff has invaluable ideas that should be nurtured. “We have outstanding people in our clinical research enterprise and I see my role as giving them the opportunities they need to succeed,” he said.
“I define success as improving patient care through the results of our clinical trias.”
Lastly, Thomas and his colleagues want to change the internal and external perception of clinical research.
He believes people choose to work at a university health center to teach and learn; and conducting research, he says, is part of that learning process in the medical field.
“Clinical research should be the expectation as opposed to just something else that we do,” he said.
Externally, Thomas and his team will work to engage the community to help them better understand clinical research and ultimately invite them to participate.
“We can’t perform the clinical research that we do without healthy volunteers and the patients in our community,” Thomas said. “There are things that we can offer here that community hospitals and other places can’t offer. Our clinical care today is so far advanced from where it was even 10 or 15 years ago, and that’s in large part, because of the clinical research that we do.”
- Jade Kelly Solovey