Leading International Research

A question and answer session with Gil I. Wolfe, MD

Named Myasthenia Gravis Foundation Doctor of the Year, Gil I. Wolfe, MD is a professor and the Irvin and Rosemary Chair of Neurology. We manage endowed chairs that attract many world-renowned researchers and scholars to UB.

Gil Wolfe is a professor and Irvin and Rosemary Smith Chair of Neurology in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. The Smith Chair, endowed by Biogen (a leading international biotechnology company), is named in honor of Irvin Smith and his wife, Rosemary.

Wolfe is an expert on neuromuscular disorders with a special focus on myasthenia gravis (MG), the most common disease of neuromuscular transmission. The UB Foundation plays a significant role in bringing renowned faculty to UB, by enabling donors to direct funds to a specific purpose such as an endowed chair.

Wolfe recently answered some questions about his research at UB; here’s what he had to say.

What brought you to UB?

Wolfe: A vision and an energy to build a state-of-the-art academic medical center. The Dean of the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences certainly factored into that decision and portrays a vision of excellence and community-building that I found unique. The energy captured in the construction of new facilities that will house and direct our clinical, educational and research missions in the years to come also was a magnet for me. I also should mention that I heard good things about Buffalo from transplants in North Texas who really miss the area. That helped to dispel doubts in moving to this part of the country. 

“Retaining top talent is crucial. There is no question that private support helps us do that.”

Gil I. Wolfe, MD, professor and Irvin and Rosemary Chair of Neurology, Jacobs School of Medicine & Biomedical Sciences

What opportunities have kept you here?

Wolfe: I have had success in building my department, which has nearly doubled in size in four years. And opportunities for further growth keep rising to the surface. The expansion has not only augmented our clinical services but has also added significantly to the educational and research components. And another major opportunity awaits in the next two years – moving into new clinical, administrative and research space. I look forward to the challenge of ensuring a smooth transition into our new homes. 

As the Irvin and Rosemary Smith Endowed Chair in Neurology, what impact has philanthropy had on your career?

Wolfe: I had an endowed chair in my prior position, so I recognized the advantage of endowments in funding research activities, filling in the gaps that grants left open, and providing a stable, renewable source of funding for rainy days, so to speak. Both in Texas and now in Western New York, endowed chairs have helped me boost the careers of junior faculty as well as house staff. For instance, just last month one of our chief residents was able to present a paper on which he was first author at a scientific symposium, partially funded by the endowed funds. 

Why is private support so important to public institutions?

Wolfe: In today’s climate medical school departments face significant financial challenges. It is true that state funding helps with faculty compensation, but it reflects only a minor component in most cases. Private support is essential to filling those gaps I mentioned, not only in helping departments achieve their research and educational missions, but also in retaining top-level talent.  

What role does private support play compared to other grants and awards you’ve received?

Wolfe: From the standpoint of supporting research staff and coordinators, private support in my career has been more impactful than grants. In the arena of clinical trials, especially, you may not receive adequate funding to support your research personnel. Private support really helps with this. Plus it makes a big difference in smaller, pilot projects that are designed to generate preliminary data; in these situations research grant proposals are either not feasible or unlikely to be funded. 

What are the benefits of donors being able to direct their funds for a specific purpose – such as endowing a chair or establishing a center?  

Wolfe: Often donors are motivated to give because of an interest in a disease state that has impacted a family member or close friend. By directing funds for a specific purpose, they will know that not only have they contributed to the knowledge base and therapeutic management for that particular disease, but have also supported the human capital to keep that research engine operating at full throttle. 

What would you say to the donors who made it possible for you to remain at UB?

Wolfe: I am forever grateful to Irvin and Rosemary Smith for endowing the chair in my department. Even though they are not from Buffalo, their example provides a template for others to contribute to UB and the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

About the Smith Chair

Biogen, a leading international biotechnology company, endowed the Irvin and Rosemary Smith Chair in Neurology. The research successes of the chair’s first holder, Lawrence D. Jacobs, MD, were instrumental to its creation. A professor of neurology, Jacobs discovered that interferon beta-1a is an effective treatment for some forms of multiple sclerosis. His studies led to the development of Avonex, the drug most prescribed to treat patients with the relapsing forms of the disease. Jacobs’s breakthrough brought worldwide acclaim and support, including the $1 million Smith Chair. It is named in honor of Irvin Smith, a retired vice president of Biogen—which manufacturers Avonex—and his wife, Rosemary.