2 physicians named MacArthur Fellows; 4 win Lasker awards

Helping veterans of combat and discovering dendritic cells are among the work being honored.

By Damon Adams — Posted Oct. 15, 2007

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Lisa Cooper, MD, MPH, doesn't have to imagine what she would do with $500,000, no strings attached.

She received a phone call last month that she was named one of 24 MacArthur Fellows for 2007, winning a "genius" grant bestowed upon creative people for their innovative work in medicine, science and other fields.

"I thought someone was pulling my leg," she said.

It was no joke.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is giving her $500,000 over five years for her work improving medical care for minorities. She is one of two physicians honored; the other is Boston psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, MD, PhD, who was recognized for his work with combat veterans.

"Obviously, people believe in you and know you're going to do something for society," said Dr. Cooper, professor of medicine, epidemiology, and health policy and management for Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. "I'm humbled. I really feel a sense of responsibility. I need to do something important and something to benefit people."

Drs. Cooper and Shay weren't the only doctors to get major awards in September. This year's Lasker Awards for outstanding contributions to medical research, a prestigious honor often called "America's Nobels," recognized four physicians.

The awards and winners are:

Basic medical research -- Ralph M. Steinman, MD, of New York City, who discovered dendritic cells, which trigger defenses against microbial invaders.

Clinical medical research -- Alain Carpentier, MD, PhD, of Paris, and Albert Starr, MD, of Portland, Ore., for developing prosthetic mitral and aortic valves, devices that have saved millions of heart disease patients.

Public service -- Anthony S. Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, for engineering U.S. government programs on AIDS and bioterrorism.

"It didn't hit me initially," Dr. Starr said of winning the award. "I was out jogging and I thought, 'Hey, that's really neat to have the recognition of your peers.' "

The Albert & Mary Lasker Foundation, which gives out the $150,000 awards, said that since 1946, 72 winners have gone on to earn a Nobel Prize, including 20 during the past 17 years.

"That's something we all aspire to," Dr. Starr said.

Lasker Foundation officials said surgeon-scientists Drs. Carpentier and Starr revolutionized heart disease treatment. More than 300,000 people worldwide receive new valves each year, and the procedure is the second most common heart surgery in the United States, behind coronary bypass operations.

Dr. Starr said he enjoys hearing from patients who have benefited.

"It's a marvelous feeling," said Dr. Starr, director of academic affairs at Providence Health System in Portland, adding that it's great to share the award with Dr. Carpentier, a longtime friend and ski buddy.

"I get a lot of letters and phone calls from patients. Sometimes, many years afterwards," Dr. Starr said. Recently, he got a call and flowers from a patient he treated in Greece in 1964. "She was fine, and that was 43 years after her surgery."

MacArthur award recipient Dr. Cooper has researched racial disparities in health care and examined ways to improve outcomes for minorities. She has developed education programs to improve the diagnosis and treatment of hypertension and depression among African-Americans, MacArthur foundation officials said.

Among her research articles, she was lead author of a study in the Dec. 2, 2003, Annals of Internal Medicine that said patients with same-race doctors were more satisfied with their visits, found their doctors were more participatory and were more likely to recommend the physician to a friend.

She is working on how to use her $500,000 prize, but said she wants to study global health issues and disadvantaged populations.

"I thought of teaming up with people in other countries," she said.

Dr. Shay, the other MacArthur physician winner, has drawn parallels between Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and the experiences of Vietnam veterans, while deepening the understanding of the effects of war on individuals.

His book, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, makes comparisons between the depiction of epic Greek Trojan War hero Achilles, the greatest warrior of the Iliad, and the experiences of veterans he treats as staff psychiatrist at the Dept. of Veteran Affairs Outpatient Clinic in Boston.

In another book, Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming, Dr. Shay looks at the veterans' return from war and the role of military policy in promoting the mental and physical safety of soldiers.

"When I started working with combat veterans, I realized I was hearing the story of Achilles over and over again," he said. "If I had not read the epics when I was recuperating [from a stroke], I never would have made the connection."

He wants to use the MacArthur money to build on his work with veterans. "The whole matter of preventive psychiatry continues to be the fire in my belly," he said. "I am a missionary for the veterans I serve."

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