Thursday, December 20, 2012

Maryland Celiac Research Center moves to Boston

The University of Maryland's Center for Celiac Research, the first of its kind in the U.S., is moving from Baltimore to Boston in January.

The center will leave the University of Maryland School of Medicine and affiliate with the Massachusetts General Hospital for Children. Mass General is the largest teaching hospital of the Harvard Medical School.

CFCR will collaborate with the Celiac Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, also affiliated with Harvard. The two are expected to combine to form the Harvard Center for Celiac Research, pending approval by the dean of the medical school.

Alessio Fasano, MD, founder, director and face of the CFCR, said the move will allow for widespread research collaboration and new advances in the treatment of celiac disease, gluten intolerance and other disorders.

"Our new location in Boston is providing the critical mass of collaborators that would be difficult to achieve in any other institution," Fasano said. He noted that Mass General was ranked the number one hospital in the U.S. and "offers a wealth of investigators, clinicians and scientists with a collegial approach to doing science."

Fasano will continue as director of the center and the Mucosal Biology and Immunology Research Laboratory at Mass General. The Center for Celiac Research Center at Mass General will begin seeing patients in January as a staff of about eight people move there. The celiac clinic in Baltimore will close Dec. 31, and patients have received letters recommending gastroenterologists who are available to provide continuing care.

Fasano said about 60 percent of the patients seen in Baltimore flew there from out of the area, and he expects the clinic in Boston to similarly draw patients from around the country.

"As we adjust to our new environment and learn the research portfolios of scientists around us, new areas for development and exploration will undoubtedly arise," he said. "Meantime, we will continue to treat both children and adults who have celiac disease, gluten intolerance, acute and chronic diarrheal diseases and difficult-to-treat gastrointestinal problems."

At the same time, research into gut permeability, the human genome and microbiome, biomarkers for gluten sensitivity and the relationship between gluten sensitivity and autism and schizophrenia already in progress will continue. Research operations will move over the next few months, with all Boston by June.

Once fully staffed the center will have 10 clinicians, 25 scientists, and five administrators. 

Fasano said several institutions had invited him to move the lab and clinical operations of the celiac center over the nearly 20 years it was in Baltimore. This time, he said, the opportunity was too good to pass up. "I believe this is the right time with the right people and the right circumstances to take the CFCR to an even higher level of excellence," he noted.

He credited early supporters in Maryland with the success of the CFCR and said the center would not have been possible without them. When the center was set up in 1996, there were no labs doing the blood tests that are now routinely used to diagnose celiac disease so the center opened its own.

"Clinical care was very erratic and patients knew more than their physicians," Fasano said, citing the center's landmark study establishing the prevalence of celiac disease at one in 133. He called it the "signature" of the center and said it's what finally convinced U.S. physicians that celiac disease was not a rare disorder. Today, there are celiac centers located across the country.

Fasano will continue to teach at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, where he is a popular professor, at least through this academic year.

Pam King, the center's director of development and operations, will continue in that role at Mass General. She said the Baltimore Celiac Walk, a major fund raiser, will continue and is scheduled for May 19. Donations from the walk and individual donors have always gone directly to the center so there will be no disruption in fund raising related to the move, King said. Mass General is covering the cost of the move, though the amount was not available.

Amy Ratner

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