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Oxford-Harrington Rare Disease Scholar Award
Development of a Novel Therapeutic for the Treatment of Hypertension and Atherosclerotic Disease
2014 Harrington Scholar-Innovator
The name Garret FitzGerald, MD, is not exactly a household word, but millions of people are familiar with at least one of his research findings – low-dose aspirin as prevention for heart attacks and stroke. Dr. FitzGerald demonstrated this in clinical trials in the 1980s, and it has been standard practice ever since. In 1999, he became known as the first physician to raise questions about the cardiovascular risks of COX-2 inhibitors like the blockbuster drugs Celebrex and Vioxx.
Born in Dublin, Ireland, where he earned his medical degree at University College Dublin, Dr. FitzGerald embraced translational research long before it was in vogue. “I started being involved in clinical research, then went to the lab to learn about biochemical assays,” he explains.
Now Professor and Chair of Pharmacology, McNeil Professor in Translational Medicine and Therapeutics at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, Dr. FitzGerald established the Institute for Translational Medicine and Therapeutics there in 2005 – the first such institute and a model for the subsequent National Institutes of Health (NIH) Clinical and Translational Science awards. “We wanted to develop an institute that embraced the kind of medicine and science we practiced,” he explains.
Over the years he has built a reputation as a physician-scientist who looks at existing clinical knowledge and practice and uses science to question it. His inspiration, he says, comes from leaders in medicine and science such as John Oates, MD, at Vanderbilt University, who is credited with leading the launch of clinical pharmacology. Dr. FitzGerald began his career in the United States at Vanderbilt when he and his wife emigrated in 1980. “I saw people there who were trained to bring science to medicine,” he says. “I look up to those who demonstrate intellectual rigor.”
As a Harrington Scholar-Innovator, Dr. FitzGerald will continue his exploration of prostaglandins as a novel therapy for high blood pressure and atherosclerosis. Prostaglandins are a type of biochemical signaling fat produced in the body, some of which specifically protect the heart.
“The NIH does not see it as very exciting to advance drug discovery to the next stage, where the Harrington Discovery Institute promotes this type of research,” Dr. FitzGerald notes. “A bonus is access to the [Harrington Discovery Institute's] intellectual capital of people experienced in developing drugs, not just the science but also the business aspects.”
In a career that spans more than 30 years, Dr. FitzGerald has done it all. He has received numerous honors, including the 2013 Grand Prix Scientifique from the Lefoulon-Delalande Foundation of the Institute of France, considered the world's most prestigious award in cardiovascular research; the 2013 Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Prize in Cardiovascular Sciences from The Ohio State University; the 2012 Lucian Award from McGill University, a semiannual award that recognizes seminal advancement in cardiovascular research; and the 2005 Boyle Medal of the Royal Dublin Society, which honors outstanding scientists. He has been interviewed by media ranging from CNN to Forbes to leading medical publications.
Even after these many accomplishments, Dr. FitzGerald is still eager for the next scientific challenge. What is it that keeps the spirit of discovery fresh for him? “That's easy,” he says. “I'm inquisitive. I like doing science.”
“I have always kept a clinical interest as part of my research, so when people started talking about translational research, I realized we seemed to be doing it.”