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Internationally recognized biophysics educator and researcher Louis J. De Felice dies at 76

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Louis J. De Felice, Ph.D.

Louis J. De Felice, Ph.D., who made significant contributions to the field of biomedical sciences and most recently served as a professor of physiology and biophysics at Virginia Commonwealth University, died suddenly on Monday from a pulmonary embolism. He was 76. 

An award-winning mentor and impassioned scientific advisor, De Felice’s research interests ranged from mathematical physics to devising novel treatments for drugs of abuse such as cocaine, amphetamines and “bath salts.” He taught courses in the biomedical sciences at VCU School of Medicine in addition to mentoring postdoctoral students and conducting research at his active molecular neuroscience laboratory in Sanger Hall on the MCV Campus. De Felice also served as assistant dean of graduate education at VCU School of Medicine.

“He was a dedicated and clear-thinking scientist who always went out of his way to help students and devoted a great deal of energy to training the next generation,” said Clive Baumgarten, Ph.D., professor and interim chair, Department of Physiology and Biophysics, VCU School of Medicine. 

Prior to joining VCU in 2008, De Felice served on the faculty at Emory University School of Medicine, Georgia Institute of Technology and Vanderbilt University. Among the students who credit De Felice for their interest in science is David Clapham, M.D., Ph.D., vice president and chief scientific officer at Howard Hughes Medical institute. 

“If I had never met Lou, I would not have been a scientist,” said Clapham, who also serves as a professor of neurobiology and pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. 

Clapham met De Felice as an undergraduate electrical engineering student at Georgia Institute of Technology where De Felice was teaching a course on ion channels. As transistors of the cell, ion channels regulate the traffic of calcium, potassium and other important ions across cell membranes. They are fundamental to all cell signaling, playing a key role in a range of activities, including muscle contraction, metabolism and reproduction.

“Lou got me interested in biology and science,” Clapham said. “He had a profound and lasting effect on my life.”

After taking the ion channel course, Clapham began working at De Felice’s laboratory at Emory. Clapham went on to earn his Ph.D. at Emory with De Felice as his advisor. 

Louis J. De Felice, Ph.D.
Louis J. De Felice, Ph.D.

“Over the last 40 years he has been a close family friend, advisor and someone with whom I could discuss anything,” Clapham said. “He influenced many of the more than 100 students and postdoctoral fellows who have been in my lab at Harvard Medical School.” 

One of those students is Scott Ramsey, Ph.D., now an assistant professor in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at VCU School of Medicine. Ramsey earned his Ph.D. in pharmacology at Vanderbilt University under De Felice’s mentorship and later completed a postdoctoral fellowship in Clapham’s laboratory. 

“Those who had the pleasure of interacting closely with Lou, particularly students such as myself, appreciated his ability to intuit and accommodate both the scientific needs and diverse personality types of trainees,” Ramsey said. 

Under De Felice’s mentorship, Ramsey studied biophysical properties of the neurotransmitter transporter for serotonin, which is the molecular target of antidepressant medications such as Prozac. 

“Lou was ahead of his time in recognizing that neurotransmitter transporters exhibit properties that are strikingly similar to ion channels,” Ramsey said. Transporters and channels had previously been thought to utilize distinctly different mechanisms to mediate the movement of ions such as sodium and potassium across cell membranes. “Lou recognized that the underlying biophysical principles of transmembrane ion flux were likely similar,” Ramsey said. 

At VCU, De Felice’s research focused on serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine transporters. Drugs such as cocaine and antidepressants act on neurotransmitter transporters, underlining the importance of those molecules on human behavior. De Felice pursued various experimental strategies in his laboratories at Vanderbilt and VCU that were designed to test the hypothesis that neurotransmitter transporters mediate channel-like conductance. 

“I think it is fair to say that although many researchers in the field saw Lou’s research as daring and unconventional, possibly even unorthodox, his contributions have provided unique insights into transporter mechanisms that are fully consistent with the laws of chemistry and physics that underlie biology,” Ramsey said. “The prescient clarity and indefatigable logic of Lou’s thoughts are likely to result in an enduring legacy that is only beginning to become recognized.”

On Monday after De Felice’s death, Ramsey spent the afternoon mourning with members of his current laboratory. 

“The unanimous facial characteristic was a smiling cry as we reminisced about how Lou touched our lives and improved our intellect,” he said. “Science with Lou was intellectually stimulating, personally rewarding and fun.” 

Science with Lou was intellectually stimulating, personally rewarding and fun.