Harald Sontheimer to hold I. D. Wilson Chair in the College of Science

Harald Sontheimer
Harald Sontheimer

Harald Sontheimer, who joined Virginia Tech earlier this month to direct a university-wide neuroscience initiative, will hold the I. D. Wilson Chair in the College of Science. That appointment was recently approved by the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors.

The I. D. Wilson Chair in the College of Science was established in 2014 by alumnus Luther Hamlett. The chair is named for I. D. Wilson, a long-time faculty member and administrator in the Department of Biology. Hamlett is a strong supporter of the Academy of Integrated Science, one of most significant initiatives in the College of Science.

In addition to his appointment as a professor in the College of Science, Sontheimer has joined the faculty at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. There he oversees his own research laboratory and directs the institute’s new Glial Biology in Health, Disease, and Cancer Center. He will also oversee the research of other faculty members who will be recruited to the center.

Sontheimer was most recently a professor of neurobiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where for the past two decades he led several major programs, including the Civitan International Research Center on Intellectual Disabilities and the world’s first Center for Glial Biology in Medicine.

Sontheimer is credited with making foundational discoveries on the functional properties of glial cells in the brain, including the localization and mechanisms of a range of receptors and ion channels that had previously been thought to exist only on nerve cells.

His work on the fundamental properties of glial cells led to his discovery of a major new therapeutic approach for the treatment of glioblastoma, the deadliest and most prevalent primary brain tumor in humans.

He identified from scorpion venom a naturally occurring compound, chlorotoxin, which has the peculiar ability to interact specifically with a protein expressed only on the surface of glial cells that have transformed to the malignant state. He determined that this molecule could prevent the spread of brain tumor cells beyond the original site of malignancy.

Sontheimer has received numerous awards and honors and has served as a professional consultant to the Scientific Advisory Boards of the Max Planck Society and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press. He has also served on the Scientific Advisory Council of the American Brain Tumor Association and on the Scientific Board of Directors of the Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy.

He is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the European Society of Neuroscience, the German Zoological Society, the New York Academy of Sciences, the Society for Neuroscience, the Society for Neurochemistry, and the Society for Developmental Neuroscience.

Sontheimer has more than $6.3 million in research grant funding. He has published a number of books and book chapters and has numerous inventions and patents.

Sontheimer earned his doctoral degree in cell biology and biophysics from the University of Heidelberg in 1989. He undertook postdoctoral training at the Yale School of Medicine, where he later served as an assistant professor of neurology and neurobiology from 1991 to 1994.