ANN ARBOR — The inaugural $100,000 Taubman Prize for Excellence in Translational Medical Science has been awarded to Harry Dietz, M.D., of Johns Hopkins University, the University of Michigan’s A. Alfred Taubman Medical Research Institute announced Monday.
Dietz, a cardiologist and genetics researcher, has made groundbreaking progress in the understanding of aortic aneurysm and related tissue disorders. His lab is the first to determine that some defects in the human body’s connective tissue, long thought to be unchangeable, can be modified with medication. The discovery has overturned decades of conventional wisdom and has tremendous implications for the treatment of genetic connective tissue disorders.
Alfred Taubman, founder and chair of the A. Alfred Taubman Medical Research Institute, said, “Dr. Dietz exemplifies the passion and persistence of physician-scientists everywhere.”
The Taubman Prize was established to annually recognize the clinician-researcher who has done the most to transform laboratory discoveries into clinical applications for patients suffering from disease. “In honoring Dr. Dietz, [a well-known] scientist whose landmark findings may improve quality of life for tens of thousands of people, I am confident that we have accomplished our goal.”
Eva Feldman, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Taubman Institute and the Russell N. DeJong Professor of Neurology at the U-M Medical School, remarked that the selection committee unanimously agreed to award him the Taubman Prize. “Researchers like Dr. Dietz are truly scientists who create cures.”
Dietz, a professor of pediatric cardiology and genetics expert at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, began his research career studying Marfan syndrome. The syndrome enlarges the aorta, the largest blood vessel in the body, which makes it more inclined to tear or burst: an often fatal event that affects about one in 5,000 people.
In studying Marfan syndrome and related disorders at the molecular level, Dietz and his team made the key discovery that this condition is responsive to medication. Up until then, physicians had believed that manifestations of these disorders would be difficult or impossible to modify.
Dietz’s research has led to a clinical trial using the blood pressure drug losartan in Marfan syndrome patients at risk for aortic aneurysm, which is currently taking place at 20 sites in the United States, Canada, and Belgium. Testing on mice in Dietz’s lab and in a smaller group of human subjects indicated that the drug dramatically slows the enlargement of the aorta, though Dietz has cautioned that full results of the broader trial will be needed to assess losartan’s effectiveness.
Dietz said the prize will spotlight the importance of translational medical research. His team and other scientists around the world are now positioned to find new treatments for not only Marfan patients, but also for disorders such as aortic aneurysm, pulmonary emphysema, fibrosis, heart valve disease, and skeletal muscle myopathy.
“I am deeply honored to receive the Taubman Prize and equally thrilled by the prospect that this high-profile mechanism to recognize excellence in translational science will stimulate both interest and progress in this important field,” he said.
A national selection committee reviewed more than 30 nominations for the 2012 Taubman Prize.
Dietz will receive the $100,000 grant to further his research and will appear as keynote speaker Oct. 11, 2012 at the Taubman Institute’s annual symposium in Ann Arbor.
Nominations for the 2013 Taubman Prize are now being accepted. For more information and judging criteria, visit the Taubman Institute website at www.taubmaninstitute.org.