Riley physician-scientist elected to National Academy of Medicine

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10/28/2020

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Dr. D. Wade Clapp is a neonatologist, researcher, physician-in-chief at Riley and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at IU School of Medicine.

By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist, mgilmer1@iuhealth.org

Dr. D. Wade Clapp, physician-in-chief at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health and chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at IU School of Medicine, is not one to seek the spotlight, but it found him recently.

Dr. Clapp has been elected to the National Academy of Medicine, a tribute to his commitment to research, the care of children and the development of new recruits to medicine.

Election to the academy, a lifetime appointment, is considered one of the highest honors in the fields of health and medicine. Yet, Dr. Clapp points out, “these things don’t happen in a vacuum.”

“I’m honored to have been elected, but it doesn’t happen without being in a good health system and a good School of Medicine,” the neonatologist said. “I am very thankful to the leaders of those organizations, to Riley Children’s Foundation and to many, many others for the support they’ve provided over the years.”

The physician, who grew up on a farm in southern Indiana, earned his undergraduate degree from Hanover College and his medical degree from IU. He stayed at Riley for residency, then went to Case Western Reserve University for his subspecialty training in neonatology and experimental hematology. He returned to IU as a faculty member and started his research lab in 1991. He has served as chair of the Department of Pediatrics since 2009.

While he still does some direct patient care in the NICU, his responsibilities as department chair – overseeing 360 faculty and 165 residents – demand a good portion of his time.

“Wade is not only a top physician-scientist, but he has also been a leader in training the next generation of physicians and scientists,” said Dr. Jay L. Hess, dean of IU School of Medicine. “His contributions to the field of neurofibromatosis have undoubtedly helped to improve the lives of people with this disorder.”

Neurofibromatosis is a genetic disorder characterized by changes in skin coloring and the growth of tumors along nerves in the skin, brain and spinal cord. It affects 1 in 3,000 people of all races and all populations across the world, Dr. Clapp said, and about half of those people will develop slow-growing but disfiguring tumors that can be deadly when they compress on vital organs.

Why the focus on neurofibromatosis?

“It started about 25 years ago in part because I was interested in developmental hematology,” he said. “Being a neonatologist I was interested in how cells functioned in early development. It turns out that in patients with neurofibromatosis type 1, a subset of them develop leukemia in infancy and early childhood.

“Our lab has been active in understanding the etiology of the development of these cancers and in identifying the first treatments,” he said.

One of the early beneficiaries of his research was a young girl who traveled to Riley from California, Dr. Clapp recalled. A tumor was obstructing her airway, but she was able to participate in a drug trial at Riley made possible by his and his team’s research. That little girl is now a teenager and tumor-free.

His tenure at IU and Riley now stretches nearly three decades, and Dr. Clapp, 65, is a vigorous proponent of what he calls “a very collaborative school and an outstanding health system.”

“Riley is a great place to work,” he said. “We have truly outstanding clinical and research programs, but there’s not a lot of big egos here. And when you have something you want to take on, people bend over backwards to help you. That’s pretty special in the academic world.”

The hospital’s proximity to Purdue University and Indiana University also means there is a strong science, engineering and chemical biology community, which helps facilitate the development of drug treatments, he said.

“I think we’re going to do great things at IU and Riley. I’m really looking forward to the next seven to 10 years. We have a phenomenal pipeline of trainees and faculty, and it’s going to be really fun to watch this group.”

New members of the National Academy of Medicine are elected by current members through a process that recognizes people who have made major contributions to the advancement of the medical sciences, health care and public health. At least one-quarter of the membership is selected from fields outside the health professions, including law, engineering, social sciences and the humanities.

As a member of the independent, evidence-based scientific advisory group, Dr. Clapp will collaborate with other members to provide objective advice on health matters nationally and globally.

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D. Wade Clapp, MD

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