U A B C O M P R E H E N S I V E C A N C E R C E N T E R 13

that concept in mind, he left suburban New

Jersey for the mountains of North Carolina,

where he received his bachelor’s degree in

chemistry from Duke University. Following

that, he received his M.D. from the George

Washington University School of Medicine

in Washington, D.C.

It was during his time at George

Washington that Dr. Whitley got the

opportunity to come to UAB. “While I was

in medical school, I had taken care of a baby

with several conditions caused by cytomega-

lovirus (part of the herpes viral group) infec-

tion,” he recalls. “The question I posed to

myself was, ‘Why would a woman transmit

this infection to the fetus in utero, when the

uterus should be the most protected environ-

ment for the child?’”

One of the leading experts trying to

answer that same question was Charles

Alford, M.D., the head of the Division of

Pediatric Infectious Diseases at UAB. Dr.

Whitley joined Dr. Alford for a six-month

research project and then returned after

graduation to complete his internship, resi-

dency and fellowship. Dr. Whitley would

end up staying at UAB, eventually joining

the faculty in 1976. “I never, ever thought

that I would be living in Birmingham,

Alabama,” he says. “But it turns out that

UAB, Birmingham and Alabama are

incredibly well-kept secrets.”

A SHIFT IN FOCUS During Dr. Whitley’s fellowship, his

research focus made a slight shift—one that

would ultimately define his career for the

next four decades. He turned toward the

research and development of antiviral drugs.

“I realized very early that in medicine,

most people take care of a limited number

of patients in their practice, but it’s research

where you can do more for the greater good

of mankind,” Dr. Whitley says.

Since 1973, Dr. Whitley has been

involved in the identification and testing of

novel antiviral drugs from both the pharma-

cokinetic and pharmacodynamics standpoint

in targeted patient populations. His research

also has expanded to include proof-of-princi-

ple studies in controlled clinical trials, which

has been particularly rewarding for him.

“When you do clinical trials that

establish the best practices for the care of

patients, then you’re really helping a larger

number of individuals,” he says. “With our

studies, especially our antiviral trials, we’ve

defined the standard of care for at least half

a dozen disease entities.” That list includes

diseases such as herpes simplex encephalitis,

neonatal herpes and, most recently, RSV

(respiratory syncytial virus) disease in bone

marrow transplant recipients.

Dr. Whitley’s work in virology has

produced promising results for both UAB

and the Comprehensive Cancer Center.

He shares a grant with the Cancer Center’s

neuro-oncology team to study the effects of

using a genetically engineered version of the

herpes simplex virus to treat glioblastomas,

the most deadly type of brain tumor. “It’s

been a fascinating approach to use viruses

that would normally kill someone if injected

into the brain and instead using those virus-

es for therapeutic purposes,” he says.

Dr. Whitley also is heavily involved in

UAB’s drug discovery programs. His work

with Birmingham’s Southern Research

Institute (SRI) eventually led to the forma-

tion of the new Alabama Drug Discovery

Alliance (see cover story), which aims to

garner and cultivate research funds from

UAB and SRI for drug discovery and devel-


A HELPFUL REWARD While Dr. Whitley never saw him-

self living in Alabama, he has made

Birmingham his home and feels no urge

to go elsewhere. “I’ve had chances to go to

other places, but the grass is not necessarily

greener on the other side of the fence,” he

says. “UAB has been a wonderful place to

be. The people, the environment—I could

never replace my colleagues.”

One of the things that Dr. Whitley

enjoys most about his job is the people he

works with. “I treasure the people in my

office. I don’t think you could find a bet-

ter group of people,” he says. “The people

at the Cancer Center are among the best

of the best—and always have been. From

my perspective, it’s centers such as the

Comprehensive Cancer Center that make

UAB the institution that it is.”

Over a 40-year career, Dr. Whitley

has celebrated many accomplishments and

milestones. Among those are his chil-

dren: Kevin, a fellow in child psychiatry at

UAB; Christopher, an architect; and twins

Jennifer, a project manager in New York,

and Katherine, a graduate student in nurs-

ing at the University of California-San


In addition to his research, Dr. Whitley

still treats patients through Children’s

Hospital of Alabama. In his limited spare

time, he enjoys fly-fishing, which has taken

him to places from Iceland to Alaska, where

he once caught a 30-inch rainbow trout.

Ultimately, it’s the importance of his

work that motivates Dr. Whitley. “All of our

studies are directed toward targets that will

help improve people’s lives,” he says. “If I’m

helping people at the end of the day, that’s

probably the most important thing for me.

That’s what I enjoy the most.”