Rodney D. Newberry, MD, Nicholas F. Costrini is a professor of gastroenterology and inflammatory bowel diseases at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and was awarded the title of physicist at William Danforth University in Washington. Established in 2022, the program aims to support the distinguished careers of physicians and scientists whose work is truly groundbreaking and field-changing. Newbery is the third physician-researcher to be named a Danforth scientist.
The University of Washington has a long history of developing and nurturing the professions of physicians and scientists. Because of their work in the clinic, combined with extensive research training, physicians and scientists are often at the forefront of solving complex medical problems, which can lead to new approaches to diagnosing and treating diseases.
Newberry is a gastroenterologist whose research focuses on determining how immune imbalances in the gut lead to inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. These diseases affect 1.6 million people in the United States alone. It studies how the cells that line the gut—the first line of defense against harmful invading pathogens—coexist with trillions of friendly gut microbes and foreign food proteins. His studies helped uncover the mechanisms by which immune cells in the gut trigger an inflammatory response against the body’s own cells, a process that can trigger the development of inflammatory bowel diseases.
“Rodney’s work has led to new insights into how a relatively poorly understood type of epithelial cell contributes to the regulation of host-microbial interactions in the gut, expertise in the study of gut immunity, and his achievements represent the epitome of what we as clinician-scientists aspire to do,” said David H. He is exploring new ways that will improve the care of patients with inflammatory bowel diseases. In naming him a Danforth Scholar, we appreciate his outstanding contributions, and I am very pleased that the Danforth Washoe Physics and Science Investigator initiative is helping to advance his work.”
Newberry is a principal investigator on six National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants focused on exploring the immune system in the gut. The grants fund innovative studies of the behavior of specialized cells called goblet cells that produce mucus in the intestine and form a protective barrier against invading pathogens. His research also showed that goblet cells play a role in chaperoning food antigens in the gut so that the immune system does not launch an attack. The work suggests that such cells are potential targets for new therapies against inflammatory bowel diseases, celiac disease and food allergies, all of which result from an overactive immune system.
Newberry and colleagues discovered that goblet cells can communicate signals to the immune system through a process called goblet cell-associated antigen pathways (GAPs). His work has shown that infection can block the way GAPs are formed, leading to a lower immune response.
In addition, he is studying how inappropriate inhibition of GAPs by microbes and pathogens may predispose people to diseases, including inflammatory bowel disease and metabolic syndrome. Newberry also showed a key role for breast milk in preventing sepsis in premature infants. His team found that a molecule in breast milk activates receptors in intestinal cells that prevent dangerous gut bacteria from moving into the bloodstream.
A decade ago, Newberry’s lab also helped develop a new imaging technique that allowed scientists to view the inner workings of the intestines in a live mouse in real time. Such imaging allowed Newberry and colleagues to learn how goblet cells behave in the intestine.
“To advance his research, Dr. Newberry has developed new ways to study how the gut protects itself from pathogens,” said Wayne M. Yokoyama, MD, director of the division of physicians and scientists, Sam J. Levine and Audrey Love Levine. Professor of Arthritis Research and Associate Dean. “It revolutionized the understanding of gut immune responses by developing ways to visualize what could not have been seen before.”
The Scholar-Physician initiative targets medical and masters/doctoral researchers who have a proven track record of contributions, exceptional research funding, and are associate professors or full professors. The medical school has set aside $40 million over the next decade to be used as part of highly competitive packages for these candidates. With seed funding from this commitment, the school’s clinical departments aim to attract and retain the most talented clinicians and scientists in the United States and abroad.
Dr. Victoria J. Fraser, MD, Adolphus Busch Professor of Medicine and chair of the Department of Medicine, said Newberry brings a clinician’s perspective to his research and a researcher’s perspective to the care of his patients. “Both are steeped in intellectual curiosity to advance the field.”
Newberry earned his bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Washington and his medical degree from the College of Medicine before joining the college in 1999.
William H. Danforth, MD, who served as chancellor of the University of Washington from 1971 to 1995, was the inspiration for this physician-scientist initiative. Danforth was a cardiologist who entered medical school in 1957 after training in medicine and pediatrics at what are now Barnes-Jewish Hospital and St. Louis Children’s Hospital. He rose through the ranks in the College of Medicine before assuming administrative duties as Vice President for Medical Affairs. Along the way, he did basic research in the lab of Nobel Laureates Carl and Gertie Curie. During his presidency, the University of Washington greatly expanded its resources for scholarship and scientific discovery, and completed its transition from a local college to a national research university.
“I am honored and privileged to be a Danforth physician and scientist,” said Newberry. Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis is one of the world’s leading biomedical research institutions with a long and rich history of breeding physicians and scientists who have advanced the field of medicine. To be alongside these individuals and to be officially named one of them is one of the highlights of my career.”