Jill Adler-Moore, Ph.D.

Faculty | Pomona

“My students are going to do all kinds of wonderful, world-changing things.”

Dr. Jill Adler-Moore developed a life-saving drug that would have made it easy to give up teaching. But for more than 40 years she's continued to train and mentor new generations of scientists at Cal Poly Pomona.

In the mid-1960s, after graduating with a degree in biology from Douglass College, an all-women's school within New Jersey's Rutgers University, Jill Adler-Moore, Ph.D., briefly considered becoming a veterinarian. A meeting with the dean at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine quickly put an end to that ambition.

"We don't," the dean informed her, "accept women."  He went on to explain, "They can't handle the animals."

Clearly, the dean didn't know anything about the student standing in front of him.

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Over a long, illustrious career as a scientist, there hasn't been much Dr. Adler-Moore couldn't handle. But in standing up for herself, she wasn't out to make a point. "I never felt I was proving myself. I was being myself," she says. "If anyone didn't understand that, it was their problem, not mine."

Instead of veterinary school, Adler-Moore earned her doctorate in medical microbiology from Cornell University Graduate School of Medical Sciences in New York City. Though she had offers from other universities, she joined the faculty of California State Polytechnic University, Pomona in 1974.

"CSU students were the ones I wanted to be with," she says. "These are kids with a really strong work ethic who don't expect things are just going to be handed to them. And because of the smaller class size, I'd be able to really get to know my students."

The young professor began applying for grants almost from the day she arrived. The funding allowed her to set up a lab at Cal Poly Pomona and, later, to train high school science teachers in how to introduce molecular biology techniques into their own classrooms.

By the early '80s, the field of biotechnology was starting to ignite. In 1983, Adler-Moore took a sabbatical to consult with a local biotech firm. She had an idea for a new kind of drug, one that would wipe out the often-deadly fungal infections that affect patients with a weakened immune system, such as people who are HIV-positive, transplant recipients, cancer patients, hospitalized patients, and those taking steroid medications.

The drug had to be better than amphotericin B, the only option to treat the infections. "This drug option was really toxic," she says. "It would cause people to have fever and chills and violent vomiting and their kidneys would get destroyed. But there was no alternative."

Adler-Moore knew that some toxic cancer chemotherapy drugs could be wrapped in microscopic fatty bubbles called liposomes that made the drug less harmful to patients, but still effective in fighting cancer. Could the process work the same way, she wondered, to kill fungi? 

A Life-Saving Drug

She would work on the formulation during her yearlong sabbatical and then for another three years at her lab at CPP.

In 1987, Adler-Moore had only tested the drug on mice when she received a call from the National Institutes of Health about a patient who'd had a heart transplant and developed a life-threatening fungal infection. The available treatments weren't working and they wanted to try her drug.

Though the medication wasn't yet approved by the FDA, Adler-Moore could make it available under "compassionate use" rules. "I knew that it worked in mice," she remembers, "but to use it in an actual patient was a totally different thing."

It turned out, the drug, which would be named AmBisome, did work. It saved the heart-transplant patient and has saved the lives of millions more in 50 countries around the world.  "You have to understand that as a scientist, 99 percent of your research is not going to work," she says. "But one percent will work, and when it does, it's amazing!"

Students at Cal Poly Pomona have also benefitted from Adler-Moore's groundbreaking research, by participating in her studies as part of their undergraduate projects or master theses or as paid research assistants. And she played a key role in creating Cal Poly Pomona's biotechnology major — the first in the California State University system — in 1990.

A Role Model

Now a professor emeritus, Adler-Moore has been passionate about inspiring students from her earliest days at Cal Poly Pomona. "There were very few women in science when I began," she says. "I'd go to big national conferences where I was in a room with hundreds of scientists and only a handful were women. When I joined Cal Poly Pomona, I felt it was important to be a role women for other young women."

Over her decades of teaching at CPP, Adler-Moore has been thriled to see much more diversity among her students. "In the beginning, only about 20 percent of my students were women," she says. "Now they make up 50 to 75 percent of students in advanced science classes. We're also helping more underrepresented minority students working toward science degrees."

"My students," she continues, beaming with pride, "are going to go on and do all kinds of wonderful, world-changing things. As for me, I'm going to keep doing this until I physically or mentally can't."

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