When he set off on his career as a physician-researcher, Dr. Neelendu “Neel” Dey thought he knew what he wanted to do: study the immunology of the liver. Fascinating stuff, it was. The puzzles that complex system presented stimulated his brain.
Then, life happened. His heart got tangled up in his science. And that changed everything.
A loved one was diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD. Doctors don’t yet know what causes IBD, in which chronic inflammation in the digestive tract leads to problems like severe diarrhea, pain and weight loss.
Dey knew he had to do something to help solve the IBD mystery.
“Once we injected my interest in science and medicine with this emotional connection, it became much of a different situation,” said Dey from his office at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. “I wanted to know in the short term what I could do to impact disease care — that was a major shift for me as a researcher.”
Although the scientific evidence isn’t there yet, Dey envisions a future in which doctors could prescribe a patient a special diet or medicine, modify the person’s unique microbiome, and improve their health or quality of life.
Thanks to her doctors, Dey’s loved one with IBD is doing well now. As a doctor himself, Dey, too, is gratified each time he sees his care improve someone’s life, sometimes in the span of just one appointment.
With his research, the horizon of change is farther away. But he’s got his eye on that distant vista.
“It will potentially impact more people, be more broadly applicable,” he said. “And it inspires the same kind of excitement for me.”
— Updated October 5, 2023