The 2.1 million people in the United States diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) probably never hear the name Gonul Velicelebi ’73. However, her research may play a major role in improving their lives.
Velicelebi is the founder, president, and CEO of Calcimedica, a biotech company in La Jolla, California, that is making great strides to improve the lives of people living with autoimmune diseases. Velicelebi founded Calcimedica about three years ago based on discoveries made by her team and a research group at Harvard University.
“Our focus is not to discover the underlying cause of autoimmune diseases, but to stop the inflammation and damage caused by those diseases,” Velicelebi said.
Velicelebi credits two aspects of her Randolph-Macon Woman’s College education for her ability to learn and innovate in the biotechnology sector.
She transferred to the College after two years at Robert College, now Bosphorus University in Istanbul, Turkey, which was the top science and technology school in the country. She arrived needing personalized, advanced instruction. Her professor, Helen Whidden, and the chemistry department played an important role in the refinement of her scientific knowledge, which enabled her to excel in biophysical sciences at Yale and in her post-doctorate work at Harvard in cell biology and neurobiology.
Velicelebi’s liberal arts foundation enabled her to understand more than science.
“Many of the non-science courses I took were by choice, and I totally enjoyed them,” she said. “As a result I am a well-rounded person who knows about the arts, sciences, politics, and history. I did not want to be a technogeek.”
She also offered advice to the next generation of biotechnology and medical innovators.
“For people who are inclined to go into sciences and medicine, I think they really need to have exposure to other disciplines at a certain dosage through their formative years,” she said, reflecting on her own efforts to balance sciences and the arts while she was at the College. “You do not get another shot at it. It is better to get some foundation to build on, even if you do it as a hobby later.”
Velicelebi’s broad educational experience has helped her balance her own life and has supported her research on autoimmune diseases such as RA.
A diagnosis of chronic RA is typically a diagnosis for life. RA is an autoimmune disease, which means the body attacks healthy bone and connective tissue. Left unchecked, the autoimmune response will cause a variety of symptoms and physical damage, including the destruction of joints. Other autoimmune diseases, such as colitis, multiple sclerosis, and psoriasis, have similar effects on the colon, nervous system, and skin.
The millions who suffer from autoimmune diseases can experience deterioration in quality of life. Medications that slow the pain, inflammation, and damage often have undesirable side effects. The same is true for organ transplant recipients.
“Drugs that help to minimize the chance of organ rejection can cause a toxic reaction after just five years,” said Velicelebi. “If you are taking anti-rejection drugs to prevent the loss of a transplanted kidney, those drugs can actually cause failure in that kidney over time.”
Human immune cells contain a calcium ion channel, or pathway. When calcium enters the pathway, it triggers the autoimmune response. Current drugs inhibit the immune response “downstream” in the pathway, which slows or blocks inflammation but also causes toxic effects. The breakthrough was discovering a way to block the ion pathway at its entrance, which still reduces the inflammation and damage without negative side effects. Medical science already knew that manipulating the channel could help people with chronic diseases. Velicelebi’s teams found a better way to do it.
“The key is to not only to block the autoimmune response, but to do it safely,” she said.