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After Three Decades, Knoxville Researcher Remains Passionate About His Work

Jonathan Wall, PhD, has spent decades researching treatments for amyloid disorders. He says he is proud of the work accomplished with the team in his lab, and grateful for the support from the UT Health Science Center College of Medicine in Knoxville.

Researcher Jonathan Wall took his PhD exam at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom on December 21, 1994, and started working at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s Graduate School of Medicine (GSM) in Knoxville on January 16, 1995.  

“I never went home for the graduation,” he says. “I actually had no idea where Knoxville was, and when I arrived, I was happy it wasn’t Nashville, because I am really not a fan of country music.”  

Today, Dr. Wall is the assistant dean for Research in the College of Medicine in Knoxville. He is a University Distinguished Professor and the director of the Amyloidosis and Cancer Theranostics program. Systemic amyloidosis occurs when clumps of protein (amyloid) build up in tissues and organs, including the heart, liver, spleen, kidneys, and nerves, causing them to malfunction. 

“I came for two years and stayed,” he says. What has kept him in Knoxville for three decades is his passion for his research and what it can mean for individuals with the disease. He is dedicated to the lab he has helped build and the growing team that continues to advance the research. 

“I am most proud of being able to work with such an incredible team of people for all the years I have been in the lab,” Dr. Wall says. “Over these years, we have achieved a lot of things, but the ones I am most proud of are those that may, one day, help patients with AL amyloidosis (light chain amyloidosis) and the other devastating types of amyloid disorders.” 

Dr. Wall came to Knoxville under the mentorship of Alan Solomon, MD, now professor emeritus in Knoxville, and one of the world’s leading experts on myeloma and amyloidosis. Dr. Wall had wanted to study multiple myeloma but knew nothing about amyloidosis. “He (Dr. Solomon) had a huge program with amazingly gifted people working there,” Dr. Wall says. “My first job in the lab was to uncover the secret of cardiac tropism in patients with AL amyloidosis, something that still hasn’t been solved by anyone to this day.”  

He says there are still people in the lab now who were working on this disease when he joined the lab. “We just don’t leave,” he says. “It’s such an interesting problem that still has lots of things to be addressed, and we’re all passionate about solving them.” 

“I am most proud of being able to work with such an incredible team of people for all the years I have been in the lab.”

Jonathan Wall, PhD

Because amyloidosis is an infiltrative disease that cannot be surgically removed, Dr. Wall and the team are working to develop antibody drugs to reverse the organ destruction it causes. “What we’re trying to do is use the body’s immune system,” he says. “We have developed, or helped develop, three antibodies that are currently in clinical trials being assessed for their ability to clear amyloid and hopefully reverse the organ destruction caused by the disease.” 

Testament to the quality of research coming from the lab, the team presented 12 abstracts of original research at the 18th International Symposium on Amyloidosis in Heidelberg, Germany. The symposium was the largest ever for the organiztion with more than 1,100 attendees from around the world. 

“The other thing I am proud of is our ongoing work to develop new diagnostic imaging agents for patients with amyloidosis,” Dr. Wall continues. “Our initial, first-in-human, clinical trial of an imaging agent was done here with support from the NIH and donors. It could not have been achieved without the expert help from everyone in the amyloid program, as well as all the patients who came to Knoxville to participate.” 

He says the College of Medicine in Knoxville has been incredibly supportive of the lab. “In addition to the continuous material support, the college has continually embraced our vision and goals for changing the clinical outcome for patients with amyloidosis.” 

Dr. Wall and the research team have spent decades trying to understand the many aspects of amyloidosis and the clinical problems that impact patients. “Over the years, this research has led to the development of novel therapeutic and diagnostic agents that are desperately needed by these patients in Tennessee, throughout the U.S., and around the world,” he says. “Many of the patients who come to participate in our trials are from Tennessee and we hope that the reagents we are developing will, one day, benefit these patients and those who visit Tennessee for expert care.” 

“Dr. Wall’s career is on the one hand emblematic of the typical faculty longevity on our campus, while on the other hand quite extraordinary with respect to his ability to collaborate and team build to produce truly meaningful discovery,” says Robert Craft, MD, dean of the College of Medicine in Knoxville. “He is also having significant impact in his role as assistant dean of Research for the Knoxville campus by leveraging the lab’s experience to create similar collaborations and outcomes in other areas of research.” 

This story originally ran in the Fall 2023 issue of the College of Medicine Magazine. Josh Sullivan, a public relations specialist at the Graduate School of Medicine in Knoxville, contributed to this story.