By: Neal Shah
Dr. Ashby is a well-known Pharmacology professor for student pharmacists studying in their professional years. He graduated from the University of Louisville with a BA in Biology and Psychology in 1983. After obtaining his PhD in Pharmacology from the University of Louisville in 1987, he continued his education by obtaining a Post-Doctorate in 1991 from SUNY Stony Brook. He was employed at Brookhaven Labs as an Associate Scientist from 1991-1995, and has taught classes at St. John’s University since 1995.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Ashby for our faculty spotlight.
Q: What does your laboratory primarily focus its research on?
A: Our lab is interested in finding compounds that will reverse multi-drug resistance (MDR) in cancer cells. Specifically, this would include drugs that block ATP-binding cassette (ABC) transporters, as they actively transport drugs from the cell, thereby attenuating their therapeutic efficacy.
Additionally, I collaborate with Dr. Sandra Reznik on research designed to reduce pre-term birth caused by inflammation. We serendipitously-discovered that a solvent known as N,N-dimethylacetamide (DMA) significantly decreased lipopolysaccharide (LPS) -induced pre-term birth in mice. Originally, we were using DMA as a solvent for another compound that was an inhibitor of the enzyme p38a mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK). The injection of DMA alone (control group) dose-dependently decreased pre-term birth and levels of certain inflammatory mediators.
I am also working with a colleague from Furman University in South Carolina on a model of binge-drinking mice. In this model, we are determining if the acute and chronic administration of dopamine D3 receptor antagonists decreases binge drinking. Currently, the compound SB-277011A produces a significant decrease in binge drinking after acute and chronic administration.
Q: Why did you choose to teach Infectious Diseases and Respiratory?
A: The Drugs and Diseases sections were created by College of Pharmacy and Allied Health Professions. Subsequently, I was assigned to teach the Infectious Diseases and Respiratory Drugs and Disease modules by my Chairman, Dr. Louis Trombetta. I was not an expert in either subject, but through teaching them, I gained an interest in antimicrobial drug resistance and inflammation.
I have also worked with Dr. Talele and Dr. Hardej in synthesizing and testing rhodanine analogues against methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) strains in vitro. One of the compounds had efficacy against MRSA similar to what we have seen with vancomycin.
Q: Antibiotic resistance has become more rampant recently, especially in hospitals. If we continue to overuse antibiotics—even in empiric therapy—do you think complete resistance will occur?
A: Absolutely. If broad-spectrum antibiotics are incorrectly prescribed or overused, antibiotic resistance will occur; thus, in terms of therapeutic options, it will force us to continually “up the ante.” This is problematic, as over the last 30 years, the number of pharmaceutical companies developing antibiotics has decreased. Although resistance will inevitably occur, the rate and extent of resistance will be difficult to predict. Many practitioners who I have spoken to generally do not give antibiotics immediately; they typically wait for positive culture identification via throat swabs, urine, or blood samples.
A decrease in the misuse of antibiotics can help decrease the incidence of resistance. In countries like Norway and England, a meta-analysis paper looked at a ten-year period decline in antibiotic prescribing and use. It showed that when the use of antibiotics decreased, especially wide spectrum drugs, there was a significant decrease in the incidence of resistance. This approach, “effective antibiotic stewardship,” should be used globally.
Q: When you are not teaching or working in your lab, what do you do?
A: My wife and I like to travel. Over the past 20 years, we have gone to Iceland, as well as toured the Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland. We also went above the Arctic Circle at one point. During a cruise of Mediterranean, we visited the island of Crete and Mykynos. We have done tours of Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and France, as well as three cross country trips in the United States – New York to California. The canyons in the southwestern Utah were among the most memorable sites.
Q: What do you think about Occupy Wall Street? On one hand, people shouldn’t expect handouts because hard work is the backbone of success. On the other hand, what bankers did to the world economy cannot be justified.
A: Americans have the right to lawfully protest what they think is wrong. The freedom of speech, with some reasonable restrictions (e.g. not allowing slander or liable) is important. I do not know the exact position of the protesters. However, I think that most protestors do not desire to get rid of the free market or capitalism; they want corporations to be held accountable for the events that lead to the market collapse in 2007. Corporations and capitalism can and do co-exist, but they both must have fidelity to the law. If they break the law, they have to be held accountable.
Q: You are infamous for drinking Nesquik – what is your favorite flavor? What is your favorite fast food? And if you had to have one meal for the rest of your life, what would it be?
A: Chocolate is the best flavor of Nesquik, without a doubt. I have tried banana, strawberry, vanilla – they’re not for me. I do not eat that much fast food; so, this question is hard to answer. I do like Chinese food, particularly the spicy variety, as well as Italian cuisine. If I had one meal to eat the rest of my life, I would have to say lobster with a baked potato and butter, with some type of salad.
Q: Do you think the FDA is being too restrictive on criteria for accepting drugs, or do you think instances like Vioxx® are justifications?
A: The use of any drug involves examining the benefit/risk ratio. The FDA has to consider these two parameters in the drug approval process. If a drug used to treat mild headaches causes severe diarrhea, it probably would not get approved due to the low benefit/risk ratio. However, if a developed drug significantly decreases mortality for leukemia while causing severe diarrhea, this benefit/risk ratio may be acceptable due to the final outcome. Additionally, by mandating that companies submit Phase IV post marketing data, the FDA can monitor for adverse effects with low incidences (and were not detected in Phases I-III).
Q: Do you have any words of advice to current pharmacy students?
A: As Shaquille O’Neal said, “Excellence is not a singular act.” Success depends on habits; you are what you repeatedly do. Also, “learning is a repetitive process that occurs over time.” It is a pleasure teaching students in pharmacy school – their background intellectual level is outstanding, but nothing takes the place of repetition. Sitting down and repeatedly studying is important, as this will increase the likelihood of retention. I repeatedly go over my notes before teaching to ensure that I am giving an accurate and updated lecture.
Q: If you could go back and choose another major (besides Pharmacology), which would you choose?
A: I would choose one of my hobbies: Meteorology. At home, I have a large collection of meteorology books and videos. In particular, I have always been interested in tornado formation. I would study it and try to improve warning systems so we can decrease the mortality that tornadoes cause.
Q: Who do you like better: Batman or Superman?
A: Obviously being familiar with both fictional characters, I prefer Batman. The underlying persona is at least human – he has to learn, hone his skills, design creative “gadgets,” and use psychological techniques to fight crime. At some level, it is something we all can relate to. Superman has powers like X-ray vision, flying, and tremendous strength. Sure, we can marvel at his abilities, but he is not relatable. We can relate more to Batman.
Q: We all know of famous scientists whose names are engraved in history: Einstein, Edison, Newton. Who is your scientific hero?
A: My father. He is the one that taught me how to look up things in dictionaries and encyclopedias. I had limited knowledge and many questions when I was younger; so, my dad would encourage me to read and derive answers for myself. He placed an emphasis on reading and talking to other people to obtain answers. But he also made it a point to tell me not to believe something because it was spoken by a famous person or found in any book or journal. He taught me another important mindset: people are people, and never believe something someone says about another group. Do not accept stereotypes because one person does not represent the whole of the group. This taught me not to be prejudiced and seek out answers that are based on reason.