With deep sadness, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) community mourns the passing of Ting-Kai Li, M.D., a renowned scientist who served as the Institute's director from 2002 to 2008. Dr. Li died on November 18, 2018, at Duke University Hospital in Durham, North Carolina.
Dr. Li’s contributions to the alcohol field were monumental. He was a brilliant researcher acclaimed for his seminal work on the metabolism, pharmacokinetics, and pharmacogenetics of alcohol, as well as the neurobiology and genetics of alcohol-related behavior. An early advocate for the development of animal models of alcohol use disorder with predictive validity, Dr. Li pioneered some of the most widely used genetic models of excessive alcohol consumption. He played a major role in bridging biology and neuroscience with alcohol and addiction research in general, leading the way for the modern disease concept accepted today.
As NIAAA Director, Dr. Li provided visionary leadership, blending administrative expertise with a comprehensive understanding of alcohol’s impact at the clinical, epidemiological, and societal levels. Dr. Li cultivated research that transformed our understanding of alcohol use disorder as being strongly influenced by gene-environment interactions, with roots often beginning in childhood and adolescence. He was key in demonstrating that patterns of drinking are the best indicators of alcohol problems in much the same way that numerical measurements of blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides relate to relative risk for cardiovascular disease. He fostered an academic environment across the Institute, establishing trans-disciplinary science teams to focus on emerging issues in the field.
Under Dr. Li’s guidance, NIAAA expanded innovative scientific collaboration, assembling, for example, an underage drinking research initiative of expert advisors whose work helped influence the first Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent and Reduce Underage Drinking (2007). During his tenure, NIAAA also developed the Integrative Neuroscience Initiative on Alcoholism, one of the first consortium-based programs adopting a neuroscience approach to address scientific questions from molecular to system levels of analysis. Dr. Li broadened NIAAA’s work force, actively recruiting talented scientists in pharmacotherapy, alcoholic liver disease, and epidemiology. Finally, Dr. Li was a dedicated and admired scientific mentor who championed support for young investigators. His legacy will live forever in his work and contributions to the alcohol field.
Born in Nanjing, China, Dr. Li earned his undergraduate degree from Northwestern University and his M.D. from Harvard University. Dr. Li joined the faculty at Indiana University as professor of medicine and biochemistry in 1971. He subsequently was named the school's John B. Hickam Professor of Medicine and Professor of Biochemistry and later Distinguished Professor of Medicine. In 1985, he became director of the Indiana Alcohol Research Center (IARC) at the Indiana University School of Medicine, where he also was the Associate Dean for Research from 1986-2000. Dr. Li was an Honorary Fellow of the Society for the Study of Addiction (UK) and a member of the Institute of Medicine (now the National Academy of Medicine).
A loving husband, father, and grandfather, Dr. Li is survived by his wife, Susan; daughters Jennifer Li and Karen Li; sister, Yuling Wei; and six grandchildren.