Researcher of the Month: Kathy Giacomini, PhD


Kathy Giacomini

photo: Noah Berger

by Shelley Wong

Kathy Giacomini, PhD, professor of bioengineering and therapeutic sciences, is the 2019 recipient of the UCSF Academic Senate Faculty Research Lecture Award in Translational Science and will deliver her talk on May 9.

She joins fellow Faculty Research Lecture Award recipients Donna Ferriero, MD, MS(Clinical Science – livestream) and Carol Gross, PhD (Basic Science – livestream).

As the awards are peer-nominated, Giacomini says, “This feels like the biggest honor I’ve ever had. To be honored by your peers in your local community is wonderful and humbling. And to be in a group with Donna and Carol, two fabulous scientists who I love, is an honor and very special as a group of three women.”

A UCSF faculty member since 1982, Giacomini is a world-renowned pharmacologist and leader in transporter biology and pharmacogenomics (lab website). She is the principal investigator of the NIH-funded Pharmacogenomics Research Network Hub, which coordinates all activities of the NIH Pharmacogenomics Research Network.

Her Faculty Research Lecture will focus on her latest research achievement: the de-orphaning of a transport protein in the human genome. “It’s a basic discovery, but it took human genetic data – clinical data – to do it, so it’s the perfect example of translational science,” says Giacomini. “In the transporter super family I work in, there are around 70 or 80 of these transporters and no one knows what they do. They are highly expressed in certain cells types and no one can figure out if they are transporting or what they are transporting. Now we can go back to the clinic and explain something.”

Giacomini will also speak on the arc of her work: “Translational science is what’s most interesting to me—translating a basic discovery to clinically relevant information and vice versa: translating a clinical discovery to fundamental mechanism—and team science. I enjoy working with groups, clinicians, and basic scientists.”

Evolution and human genetic research have been at the core of her interests. She says, “I’m curious as to why people vary in terms of drug response, if they have a genetic variant. Why in the world do they have it? Did it confer a selective advantage to their ancestral populations?”

Giacomini is biracial with a Filipina mother and white father who met during World War II. She cites her unique upbringing growing up in Colorado as being formative to developing her open-mindedness and pursuit of understanding complexity and unraveling anomalies.

A career is about the people you meet along the way. My mentors range from people above me to peer mentors to my student mentors.

Kathy Giacomini, PhD

Professor of Bioengineering and Therapeutic Sciences

Her scientific advice: “Follow your data. Look at your data, think about your data. It’s trying to tell you something, especially if it’s creating a weird paradox. Look for the weird things. I became interested in pharmacogenetics by just looking at my data.” In 1997, Giacomini’s curiosity about the difference between the sequence of her laboratory’s clone of the first human organic cation transporter, OCT1, and another lab’s sequence of the same human liver cation transporter led to one of her most cited publications describing the transporter’s first cloning and functional expression, which was published in Molecular Pharmacology.

Leadership and collaboration are enduring themes throughout Giacomini’s career. She is the co-director of the UCSF-Stanford Center of Excellence in Regulatory Sciences and Innovation (a major center funded by the FDA), co-founder of the International Transporter Consortium, and former chair of the Department of Bioengineering and Therapeutic Sciences, a joint department of the UCSF Schools of Pharmacy and Medicine. She is also co-chair of UCSF’s Human Genetics Task Force (with co-chair Ophir Klein, MD), which is convening to provide a vision and recommendations for the future of human genetics at UCSF.

“A good collaboration brings everyone to the table to work on problems that you are all defining and working on together,” Giacomini says. “I like multi-sector collaborations. If you don’t get academia, industry, and the FDA in one room together, there won’t be changes in policy and people won’t understand what’s going on in the other sector. Also, collaborating with people who you like and respect and with whom you have a ‘high fun factor’ is always good.”

For Giacomini, mentorship is deeply important and a mentoring relationship is reciprocal across all levels of experience. “A career is about the people you meet along the way. My mentors range from people above me to peer mentors to my student mentors,” she says.

Giacomini is an elected member of the National Academy of Medicine. Her recent honors include the North American Scientific Achievement Award from the International Society for the Study of Xenobiotics, the Volwiler Research Achievement Award, and the Bill Heller Mentor of the Year Award from the American Foundation for Pharmaceutical Education. Early in her career, she received two of UCSF’s highest honors—the Chancellor Award for the Advancement of Women and the Chancellor Award for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Leadership.

Looking ahead, Giacomini is not only thinking about curing disease, but about healthy lifestyles. She is developing a new interest in the role of transporters in prevention medicine and healthy living. She says, “Transporters mediate drug-drug interactions that can cause all sorts of health problems, but we are spending time on transporter-mediated drug nutrient interactions. In this case, taking a drug could inhibit your absorption of a vitamin that can cause hidden problems that you may be unaware of.”

It has been another banner year for UCSF, with recent news that UCSF is once again the number one NIH-funded public institution. Giacomini sees the accomplishment as a reflection of UCSF’s expansive spirit.

She says, “Being in a creative environment at UCSF surrounded by innovative scientists has a way of percolating through and bringing a lot of excitement to everyone. I love being in this particular village. I love my students and postdocs. The future is bright.”


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