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Featured Scientist: Dec. 2014


Dr. Ian Blair

By David Woods, PhD.

Acclaimed British Pharmacologist Dr. Ian Blair Brings His Wealth of International Experience to FA Research.

An article on the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer on October 19 described asbestos-related mesothelioma and the work being done by the University of Pennsylvania’s Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology under the direction of Ian A. Blair, PhD.

What’s asbestos got to do with Friedreich’s ataxia, you might ask. Two things: both the asbestos and the Friedreich’s research are like looking for a molecular needle in a haystack — a biomarker, says Blair, who is hunting for that needle in both cases.

An affable ex-Brit, he has served since 1997 as the A.N. Richards Professor in Penn’s Department of Systems Pharmacology and Translational Therapeutics. He came to the role following significant appointments at Makerere University in Uganda, at academic institutions in Australia, at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, and at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School at the University of London.

At the highly prestigious Imperial College of Science and Technology in London under famed tutor Sir Derek Barton he gained his PhD in organic chemistry. He jokes, though, that because he was coming from Uganda, Imperial thought he was a native born African and accepted him under some kind of diversity imperative. In the early 1970s Uganda was ruled by the bloodthirsty dictator Idi Amin and, if you’ve seen the movie The Last King of Scotland, you’ll know that the country was a dangerous place for postcolonial Britons.

Blair’s wife of 47 years, Gillian is a forensic psychologist “which makes it easier to deal with me,” says her husband. After Gillian gave birth to the couple’s first of two daughters, Blair was involved in some harrowing negotiations about visas in order to spirit them out of the country and to safety in Britain. It reminds Ian Blair of another movie, Casablanca, that featured a last-minute escape from Morocco.

Blair became involved in FA pretty much by accident. Tom Hamilton, a major donor to the Center of Excellence in Friedreich’s Ataxia (a partnership of CHOP, UPenn and FARA), piqued his interest and his desire to contribute. “It brought together a lot of things that I knew something about,” he says. “We’ve developed a biomarker and are looking at ways to measure and isolate frataxin.” Now, working with Dr. David Lynch, Blair is exploring metabolic approaches to FA under a subcontract of the Center of Excellence to perform biomarker analyses using novel mass spectrometry-based methodology developed in Blair’s lab.

Ian Blair is not simply a boffin, a British term for a person focusing exclusively on technical research and staring through microscopes. The avid golfer climbed Mount Kilimanjaro when he was 18, ran four marathons when he was 50 (he’s now 69), rides around in his much loved red Porsche Boxter, and enjoys his six grandchildren, courtesy of his daughters Ester and Emma.

Despite the multiple high-level research and academic positions he’s held, including service on the editorial boards of several scientific publications, visiting lectureships in China and Japan, and publications involving 329 peer-reviewed manuscripts, Ian Blair has a rumpled, laid-back manner. He masks his attainments with a jovial, self-deprecating humor. But the plaques on his office wall at Penn attest to a career of huge accomplishment and international recognition.

Much, much more than a boffin, what?

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