Eva Feldman has been at the forefront of the University of Michigan’s stem cell research for decades. Since receiving her M.D. and Ph.D. degrees from the University and, later, becoming director of research for the University Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Clinic and director of the A. Alfred Taubman Medical Research Institute, Feldman has conducted her research with one thing in mind: finding a cure for ALS.
Though Feldman recently announced she will be stepping down from the latter position, her extensive research and numerous accomplishments as director of the Taubman Institute will not be forgotten by peers, mentees and — most importantly — her patients.
Stem cell research, though controversial, has always been a noteworthy point of scientific and medical innovation and development at the University despite pushback from human rights groups and government action.
Feldman herself has been conducting her research for years, starting first as a fellow at the University in 1987, then later joining as a faculty member, practicing clinical trials and speaking at events to stress the significance of stem cell research. She conducts research primarily on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease — a neurodegenerative disease which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 5,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with each year.
The creation of the Taubman Institute first stemmed from a unique friendship between Feldman and one of her early patients, A. Alfred Taubman. While Feldman was Taubman’s physician, he became more and more interested in medical research and funded her work several times.
“I said, ‘you know Alfred, we need to do something bigger than just me,’ ” Feldman said.
With the help of then-University President Mary Sue Coleman and other administrators, the Taubman was founded in 2007, aiming to allow researchers to pursue all avenues of biomedical research at the University.
“He was the world’s best patient,” Feldman laughed, noting Taubman even had his own white lab coat when visiting her lab. Feldman recognized his willingness to learn about her research and help close a gap present at the University in terms of this work.
Starting with just four central physician scientists a decade ago, the institute has more than 200 working researchers today, and while it is centered around the study of neurodegenerative disease, cancer and cardiovascular disease, researchers also touch on a variety of other medical research areas.
Feldman, who has served as director of the institute since its inception and is a Russell N. DeJong Professor of Neurology, said her inspiration for her research stems from a desire to make positive and impactful discoveries in neurology and cancer care.
“Our goal has always been to understand the pathogenesis of neurological disorders and create new therapies,” Feldman said, recalling the impact that seeing one of her first patients had on her. This patient was a woman — just a few years older than her at the time — who had ALS.
Feldman has received a number of awards and authored countless academic articles regarding her work — many of which have been acknowledged in medical news across the nation — all motivated by the patients and diseases seen.
“Starting to see patients when I was young … made me realize that this is what I wanted to do,” Feldman said.
The work of Feldman and her closest peers have also led scientists closer to a cure for ALS than ever. This isn’t to say Feldman hasn’t faced challenges, however — namely, finances. The institute was born just prior to the 2008 recession, prompting researchers there to find new ways to gain access to local, pharmaceutical and national funding.
“There’s certainly now, at the medical center, a much more robust infrastructure to help individuals with the novel ideas they’ve created as Taubman scholars to bring them forth to the clinic,” Feldman said. “That’s one of the underlying tenants and one of the underlying visions of the institute, is to let a clinician scientist take that discovery and bring it into the clinic.”
Aside from finances, gaining recognition within the University was a challenge at the beginning. Now, however, the institute has gained national recognition.
Max Wicha, director of the Forbes Institute for Cancer Discovery and one of the founding scholars of the Taubman, attributed much of the institute’s success to Feldman and her dedication to medical treatment and innovation.
“One characteristic above all is that she’s amazingly caring and really wants to help other people and help their career and also to move science forward — very unselfish,” Wicha said.
Wicha admired the work of Feldman as a physician scientist, a challenging task he has experienced himself. Being pulled in two directions — both conducting lab research and regularly seeing patients — can be demanding, he said, but rewarding.
“She saw the need, as I do, that physician scientists were critical, because dealing with patients, they really understand the disease processes,” Wicha said.
Wicha said Feldman’s emphasis on emerging physician scientists and scholars and team science has also led the Taubman Institute to become more multidisciplinary within the University.
However, Feldman said there is still work to be done, one reason she will continue to do research after she steps down from the position.
Feldman will be working to get her trial for stem cells approved by the FDA; in the meantime, she’ll always look back on the phenomenal work she got to be a part of as director of the Taubman.
“I just had the last ten best years of my life, and it’s really exciting to pass the baton to someone who could have the next ten best years of their life, taking what we’ve established and then using their vision to grow it or to move it in different, innovative, novel directions,” Feldman said.