Evolutionary medicine expert joins ASU faculty

January 16, 2014

Editor's Note: The Center of Evolution, Medicine and Public Health kicks off its inaugural lecture and symposium series Jan. 17. For the schedule, click here.

Randolph M. Nesse, one of the world’s preeminent researchers and teachers in the field of evolutionary medicine, joins the Arizona State University faculty this semester. Dr. Randolph M. Nesse, M.D. Download Full Image

Nesse is settling into his academic home in the School of Life Sciences, in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, where he is foundation professor and founding director of a new Center for Evolution, Medicine and Public Health. The center will be part of the Biodesign Institute research network.

Before joining ASU, Nesse was professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Michigan, where he also was research professor at the Institute of Social Research and director of the university’s Evolution and Human Adaptation Program.

“ASU was attractive to me because the university has great faculty working in this area – in the School of Life Sciences, Biodesign with its superb Center for Evolutionary Medicine and Bioinformatics led by Sudhir Kumar, the School of Human Evolution and Social change, and in departments like psychology – as well as a strong partnership with the Mayo Clinic,” Nesse said.

“The university is innovative, forward-thinking and is perfectly positioned to be the preeminent place in the world for changing how we think about human health. It is my vision that people from all over the world who are interested in evolutionary medicine will come here to study.”

Nesse said it was at an academic meeting with ASU professor Robert Page, now university provost, and Manfred Laudbichler at which the path to ASU was initially set.

“Randy’s dream was to teach evolutionary medicine to doctors, to change the way they treat patients, and we were fascinated by what he was doing,” said Page. “We were building these programs with Mayo and we thought ASU would be the perfect fit for Randy’s vision.

“We need to look at different ways to advance the research enterprise at ASU. So we are looking for opportunities to make big leaps, to grab that emerging wave before it has crested. Evolutionary medicine is poised to be huge, and we want to be the place to put it on the map. Randy will help make that happen.”

According to Nesse, his early work on the origins of biological aging and the neuroendocrinology of anxiety soon led to a fascination with evolution. He collaborated with George Williams on several early works in Darwinian medicine, including “The Dawn of Darwinian Medicine” and the book "Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine."

Evolutionary medicine, or Darwinian medicine, is the application of modern evolutionary theory to understanding health and disease. The goal of evolutionary medicine is to understand why people get sick, not simply how they get sick. Modern medical research and practice has focused on the molecular and physiological mechanisms underlying health and disease, while evolutionary medicine focuses on the question of why evolution has shaped mechanisms that leave us susceptible to disease.

Nesse’s primary current research focus is on how natural selection shaped the capacity for high and low moods and the mechanisms that regulate mood and anxiety. His work emphasizes the utility of negative emotions in certain situations, and how a signal detection analysis (the “smoke detector principle”) can help to explain why anxiety and other aversive emotions are, like fever and pain, expressed so often when they do not seem necessary.

He is particularly interested in the utility of low mood in disengaging effort from unreachable goals, and whether inability to give up large unattainable goals might help to explain the prevalence of depression. This proves valuable in his work as a practicing physician specializing in psychiatry, a field that is just beginning to recognize the utility of the well-developed evolutionary principles that are the foundation for the study of animal behavior.

Nesse has taken on the mission of publicizing the diverse additional contributions evolution could make to medicine if doctors learned evolutionary biology as a basic medical science, and the ways this can improve human health. This has involved extensive writing, lecturing and helping to organize the growing evolution and medicine community. 

Nesse is also president of the Evolution, Medicine and Public Health Foundation, which sponsors two publications, The Evolution & Medicine Review, which he edits, and Evolution, Medicine, & Public Health, an Oxford Press open-access journal edited by Stephen Stearns, with a team of 89 associate editors, that publishes original, rigorous applications of evolutionary biology to problems in medicine and public health. As Nesse says, “The field is entering a phase of exponential growth that will be much faster and better, thanks to ASU.” 

Nesse holds a bachelor of arts from Carleton College and a doctor of medicine from the University of Michigan Medical School.

Sharon Keeler

associate director, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


ASU center kicks off inaugural lectures, symposium series on evolutionary health

January 16, 2014

The ASU Center for Evolution, Medicine & Public Health will host several events to celebrate the center's launch.

Directed by Randolph Nesse, foundation professor and founding director, the center’s mission is to establish evolutionary biology as a basic science for medicine and public health worldwide. Research is at its core, but the center also will have major commitments to education, outreach and developing similar programs elsewhere. Download Full Image

The new center will coordinate with the ASU Center for Evolutionary Medicine and Bioinformatics in the Biodesign Institute, directed by Regents' Professor Sudhir Kumar, by augmenting existing strengths in phylogenetics with new faculty whose research uses basic evolutionary principles to understand problems such as antibiotic resistance, cancer, autoimmune disease, aging and behavioral disorders.

Schedule of events (open to the public)
*Speaker abstracts below

"Galen, hagfish and the bench-to-bedside gap in endothelial biomedicine: a noisy affair" 
2-3:15 p.m. Jan. 17, LSE 104 (refreshments served beforehand)
Willaim Aird, professor of medicine, Harvard Medical School and director, Center for Vascular Biology Research, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

Symposium on Evolution, Medicine & Public Health: The Great Opportunity
1-6:30 p.m., Jan. 21, Memorial Union 241

• 1 p.m., "Hormones in the wild: Physiological adaptations for human social relationships," Mark Flinn, professor and chair of anthropology, University of Missouri

• 2:30 p.m., "The evolution of drug resistance and the curious orthodoxy of aggressive chemotherapy," Andrew Read, alumni professor in the biological sciences, professor of entomology and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics

• 4 p.m. "Making evolutionary biology a basic science for medicine worldwide: What can ASU do?" Panel discussion with the four visitors and ASU faculty, led by Randolph Nesse

• 5:30 p.m. Open reception for all who share an interest in evolution and medicine

"Where Darwin meets Freud: Evolutionary biology and the genetics of autism, psychosis, and the social brain" 
noon-1 p.m., Jan. 22, ISTB-1 401
Bernard Crespi, professor of biology, Simon Fraser University

To join the listserv for CEMPH events, send a note to CEMPH@asu.edu. To view the speakers' bios and papers, click here.

*Speaker abstracts:

"Galen, hagfish and the bench-to-bedside gap in endothelial biomedicine: a noisy affair," William Aird
The vascular endothelium, which forms the inner lining of the blood vascular system, is an under-appreciated organ system that has enormous, though largely untapped diagnostic and therapeutic potential. There exists a wide bench-to-bedside gap in endothelial biomedicine. Future advances in vascular medicine are contingent upon narrowing the gap and translating knowledge to improve patient care. A first step is to recognize the origins of the existing chasm. One reason relates to medicine’s present-day preoccupation with large arteries, at the expense of the vast expanses of microscopic small blood vessels or capillaries. While large arteries are vulnerable to developing atherosclerosis, microvessels hold important clues about the mechanisms of virtually every other disease in humans. I will discuss how our focus on large vessels is rooted in Ancient Greek medicine, and was further sharpened by William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation. In the 1900s, the compartmentalization of medicine into organ-specific disciplines further hampered our ability to approach the vasculature as an integrated organ. Another reason for the lack of progress in knowledge translation is our focus on cell culture. I will discuss how traditional in vitro studies have shaped our view of the endothelial cell as a homogeneous entity and precluded analysis of its emergent properties. I will emphasize the remarkable adaptability of the intact endothelium, review proximate mechanisms of endothelial cell heterogeneity and introduce the novel role of multistability and biological noise in mediating phenotypic differences between endothelial cells. Finally, I will address evolutionary mechanisms of endothelial heterogeneity. I will present data from our studies in hagfish, the oldest extant vertebrate, showing that phenotypic heterogeneity evolved as a core feature of the endothelium. In conclusion, I will argue that future breakthroughs in endothelial biomedicine will require an understanding of the dynamical regulatory network of the endothelium at multiple scales.

"Hormones in the wild: Physiological adaptations for human social relationships," Mark Flinn
We humans are highly sensitive to our social environments. Our brains have special abilities such as empathy and social foresight that allow us to understand each other’s feelings and communicate in ways that are unique among all living organisms. Our bodies use internal chemical messengers – hormones and neurotransmitters – to help guide responses to our social worlds. Understanding this chemical language is important for many research questions in anthropology. For the past 25 years I have conducted a field study of child stress and family environment in a rural community in Dominica. The primary objective is to document hormonal responses of children to everyday interactions with their parents and other care providers, concomitant with longitudinal assessment of developmental and health outcomes. Results indicate that difficult family environments and traumatic social events are associated with temporal elevations of cortisol and morbidity risk. The long-term effects of traumatic early experiences on cortisol profiles are complex and indicate domain-specific effects, with normal recovery from physical stressors, but some heightened response to negative-affect social challenges.

"The evolution of drug resistance and the curious orthodoxy of aggressive chemotherapy," Andrew Read
Drug-resistance is a major public health problem. Conventional wisdom on resistance management is to use aggressive chemotherapy to kill pathogens as rapidly as possible so as to prevent them from acquiring resistance. This is the reason why physicians frequently exhort patients to finish drug courses even after they no longer feel sick. I will argue that that aggressive chemotherapy will not be the best way to retard resistance evolution in some – perhaps many – circumstances.
"Where Darwin meets Freud: Evolutionary Biology and genetics of autism, psychosis, and the social brain," Bernard Crespi
Mental disorders are usually conceptualized in terms of pathology and disease. I describe a new  perspective, based in evolutionary biology and genetics, that  the forms and risks of human psychiatric conditions have evolved. Under this rubric, such  conditions represent  hypo-development, or  hyper-development, of   human­ evolved adaptations and tradeoffs. I present evidence from genetics, endocrinology, neuroscience, psychology and psychiatry that autism spectrum and psychotic-affective conditions (mainly schizophrenia, bipolar disorder  and  depression)  represent  diametric (opposite) conditions with  regard to  human social and  non-social cognition. This evolutionary perspective has  direct implications for  the  study, understanding and treatment of psychiatric conditions.

Sharon Keeler

associate director, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering