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Research Profile: Tom Burris

Published on 03 June 2020

Tom Burris, Ph.D., FAAAS, FAHA, Alumni Chair in Pharmaceutical Education and vice president for research at St. Louis College of Pharmacy, conducts cutting-edge research in the fields of cardio metabolic diseases, muscle function, Alzheimer’s disease, fatty liver disease and traumatic brain injury.  

“My team is working on a number of exciting projects,” Burris explained. “Last year, we received over $6 million in grants to support our work in targeting nuclear receptors to create precision therapeutics for several diseases that currently have limited treatment options.”

Working with nuclear receptors allows Burris’ team to tackle multiple diseases with the same underlying causes, such as inflammation. In doing so, they are able to research several related diseases at once and develop therapeutics with multiple uses.

“We are working on a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease that would suppress inflammation in the brain,” Burris explained. “Not only is that good news for Alzheimer’s disease research, but the advances we’re making could be applied to other inflammatory diseases as well.”

Burris earned a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from Southern Illinois University before obtaining his Ph.D. in Molecular Biophysics from Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida. He spent much of his early career working in the pharmaceutical industry at Johnson and Johnson and Eli Lily and Company, where he learned the value of collaborating alongside diverse teams in order to advance drug discovery.

After spending over a decade in industry, Burris returned to his academic roots. He served as professor and director of the center for metabolic disease of the Jupiter, Florida campus of Scripps Research for five years before coming to St. Louis to head the Department of Pharmacology and Physiology at St. Louis University School of Medicine. In 2018, he was recruited to the Center for Clinical Pharmacology, a joint venture between the College and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis to advance the rational use of medicine, translate basic research into actionable, clinical research and care, and prepare the next generation of clinical scientists.

Burris came to the College with several of his existing team members and quickly began recruiting additional prominent scientists to round out the center’s research team.

“The center is based on the industry model of hiring an interdisciplinary team that can collaborate on the whole drug discovery process,” Burris explained. “Unlike a traditional academic department with multiple people working in the same field, every member of my team has a unique role.”

As vice president for research at the College, Burris divides his time between leading his research team and working towards enhancing the College’s overall research capacity, promoting a culture of research excellence and raising the College’s research profile nationally and internationally, and his work is paying off.

In 2019, the College was ranked 25th among all U.S. pharmacy schools for funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and was the top ranked private college of pharmacy for NIH grants. The data was outlined in a report recently published by the Blue Ridge Institute for Medical Research which outlines data compiled from NIH and highlights grants awarded to U.S. pharmacy schools between Oct. 1, 2018 and Sept. 30. 2019. During that timeframe, the College received more than $5.6 million in grant funding from NIH.

Additionally, Burris recently received a $740,000 grant from Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals for his work in muscle function therapeutics.

“We’re rapidly moving towards our goal of becoming a top 20 research institution in terms of funding,” Burris explained. “This is an exciting time at the College, and I can’t wait to see what’s to come for our faculty, students, alumni and the college as a whole as we continue to expand our research funding.”

Burris is also involved in the creation of the Master of Science in Medicinal Chemistry program, which will debut in 2021, pending accreditation. He’s eager to expand student opportunities through coursework and hands-on experience in the lab.

“We want our students to get real-world research experience that they can carry into their careers,” Burris explains. “This program is ideal both for students who want to work in the pharmaceutical industry and for those who want to get a Ph.D. and conduct academic research. It’s also a good compliment to the College’s Doctor of Pharmacy program for students who want a diverse skill set. As a pharmacy school, it’s crucial for us to be on the cutting edge of pharmaceutical research as well as train the next generation of scientists.”

In addition to the recent grant from Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals, Burris’ work is supported by the National Institutes of Health, the American Heart Association and the Department of Defense.

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