May 26, 1994
Vol. 13, No. 19

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    Amoco Award: Philip Hoffmann, Professor in Pharmacologica

    All good teachers learn from their students, but few faculty members have been influenced by the work of an undergraduate as profoundly as has Amoco Award winner Philip Hoffmann, Professor in Pharmacological & Physiological Sciences. The research that he and his colleagues have been conducting for nearly 20 years -- on the nerve cells that play a role in Parkinson's disease, schizophrenia and nicotine addiction -- employs an in vitro model of neuron growth that he learned about at an undergraduate research seminar.

    In the mid-1970s, while serving on the Biological Sciences Collegiate Division Committee on Undergraduate Research, Hoffmann happened to attend a research-seminar presentation by Pat Levitt, a College student who was working in the laboratory of Beatrice Garber, Professor in Biology. Levitt and Garber were disassociating brain cells from fetal mice into single-cell suspensions and studying how the cells would come back together to form clusters in a process that mimics normal brain development. Levitt had shown that cells containing the chemical messenger dopamine, the class of neuron that Hoffmann was interested in, were present in the clusters.

    "I was very excited -- it was easy to see how we could use that system in interesting ways," Hoffmann recalled. He began a collaboration with Alfred Heller, Professor in Pharmacological & Physiological Sciences, and Garber. Levitt went on to graduate school and is now a neuroscientist on the faculty of the Robert Johnson Wood Medical School in New Jersey.

    Since that time, Hoffmann and Heller (Garber died in 1980), have continued to use the system to study the factors that influence normal brain development. They've shown that dopamine-containing neurons only survive when grown in the presence of those brain cells that the neurons normally reach out and touch. They've also used the system to study the neurotoxicity of a series of street "designer-drug" derivatives of amphetamine, and they are using it to search for environmental toxins that may be involved in the development of Parkinson's disease, a progressive nervous disease of the elderly that does not have a strong hereditary component.

    In the 20 years since Levitt's seminar, Hoffmann has retained his respect and high expectations for College students. He teaches a course in the Common Core called Physiological Regulation that centers on the process of homeostasis, the complex means by which an organism maintains a constant internal environment in the midst of a changing external environment. He prefers to teach by somewhat of a Socratic method of discussion, rather than by lecture.

    "Some of my colleagues may not agree with that as an appropriate pedagogical method for the sciences," Hoffmann said, noting that some prefer to convey facts in the most direct manner. "But I feel very strongly that -- particularly at the Common Core level -- students need to know how we arrive at those tentative facts. The only way to do that is to discuss the nature of the evidence."

    Hoffmann also teaches an advanced course in neuropharmacology as well as the general pharmacology course in the Pritzker School of Medicine. He won the Quantrell Award in 1971 and the Basic Sciences Teaching Award in the Pritzker School of Medicine in 1977, 1982 and 1984.

    After receiving his Ph.D. in pharmacology from Chicago, Hoffmann received postdoctoral training in West Germany and Sweden. He has been a University faculty member since 1963.

    -- Bill Burton