4 physicians honored with MacArthur, Lasker awards
■ Work in geriatrics, infectious diseases, public health and cancer treatment is recognized.
By Susan J. Landers — Posted Oct. 5, 2009
Mary Tinetti, MD, was one of two physicians to get an "out of the blue" phone call from the MacArthur foundation in late September informing her that she would receive $500,000, no strings attached.
"I was asked if I was sitting down, and I got a little suspicious," Dr. Tinetti said. "I didn't believe it, and it still doesn't seem completely real."
But it is real.
Dr. Tinetti, a professor of medicine, epidemiology and public health at the Yale University School of Medicine in Connecticut, was named a MacArthur fellow for her work on the widely recognized, but little-investigated, problem of injuries due to falls among elderly people. She has championed the idea that the increased risk of falling faced by older people be incorporated into the diagnosis and treatment of other diseases, such as diabetes, depression, arthritis, insomnia and low blood pressure.
For nearly three decades, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has been awarding $500,000 fellowships to creative people who work in medicine, science and other fields. Winners are selected for the originality of their work and their potential to make important contributions in the future.
Although Dr. Tinetti has a few months to decide how to use the money, she may tackle the complexity of medical decision-making in treating older people who often have many diseases. A balance must be struck between treating one disease without making another worse, she said.
"What's the best strategy to maximize benefits and minimize harms?" she asked. "Right now we don't really have a good, feasible way to do that in practice. I will likely do something about that with the award."
The second physician among this year's recipients of the five-year grants is Jill Seaman, MD, an infectious diseases specialist who provides care in remote areas of Sudan in Africa and in Yup'ik Eskimo communities in Alaska.
She began working in Africa in 1989 for Doctors Without Borders. After the group left Sudan in the late 1990s, Dr. Seaman established her own medical organization to continue her work in Africa.
"I feel very fortunate to have found a place where what I have been trained to do can be put to good use," Dr. Seaman said in a video on the MacArthur foundation's Web site.
Brian J. Druker, MD, director of Oregon Health & Science University's Cancer Institute, and Nicholas B. Lydon, PhD, head of consulting company Granite Biopharma LLC in Wyoming, were honored for research that led to the development of imatinib for treating CML and other cancers. Charles L. Sawyers, MD, chair of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center's Human Oncology and Pathogenesis Program, was cited for his efforts toward combating resistance to the drug, marketed by Novartis as Gleevec, that arises in some patients.
The trio's discoveries also revolutionized cancer drug development by demonstrating the effectiveness of treatments that target a cancer-causing molecule and avoid damage to normal cells.
"One of the really fun things since the announcement was to get phone calls and e-mails from patients, some of whom were part of the original phase I study [on Gleevec]. It's amazing to hear from them," Dr. Sawyers said.
Although "it's extremely gratifying to be recognized by your peers," Dr. Druker said, it's hard to beat congratulatory messages from patients who are still alive because of Gleevec. "One woman showed me pictures of her grandchildren. Another said her daughter is graduating from college. That's what it's all about."
Dr. Druker continues to study CML and search for targets for other cancer drugs. "We know we have patients with manageable CML, and now we want to cure it," he said.