2012 George Rieveschl Jr. Award for Distinguished Scientific Research: Arnold Schwartz, PhD
As a veteran actor (stage name Arnie Shayne), Arnold Schwartz, PhD, would be a natural in the role of the beleaguered baseball manager in "Damn Yankees” belting out "You Gotta Have Heart.” In real life, Schwartz’s contributions to the understanding of the human heart far exceed the inspirational. The focus of his half-century of research, 35 years of it spent at UC, has been the heart—how it works, what goes wrong and how an understanding of those mechanisms can lead to the development of new drugs.
"My field has always been, how does the heart become excited?” Schwartz says, sounding pretty excited himself.
Schwartz learned from the greats—including Nobel laureates Robert Furchgott and Jens Christian Skou and pioneering surgeon Michael DeBakey—and applied those lessons to his research. He was the first to clone and characterize a human heart channel and identify the sites for the receptors of digitalis and related drugs. His work on digitalis’ mechanism of action led to the development of calcium channel blockers that are widely used to treat heart failure and hypertension. As colleague Evangelia Kranias, PhD, puts it, "He is known all over the world as the ‘Digitalis Receptor and mechanism of action’ guy.”
Schwartz is a native of New York City, with the scrappy, fighter’s mentality that comes with it. His road to UC was a circuitous one, with stops that included South Korea, England, Denmark and Houston. It started at City College of New York, where he was pursuing an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering—until his father stepped in.
"My father said, ‘You’re not gonna make anything at all in engineering,’” recalls Schwartz, who listened to his father and after a flirtation with medicine, obtained his pharmacist’s degree from Long Island University. "I’m still a pharmacist,” he reports. "I volunteer in Over-the-Rhine, and it’s just a wonderful thing for me to do.” (Schwartz’s experience also includes five years as a U.S. Air Force pharmacist, with service in South Korea and South Vietnam.)
After earning his master’s in pharmacology/pharmacy at Ohio State University, Schwartz cast his eye back toward New York and Albert Einstein College of Medicine with the intent of obtaining a doctorate, only to be told he was too old. Not one to give up, he was accepted at SUNY Downstate in Brooklyn. There he became one of the first graduate students in the newly formed department of pharmacology, which was overseen by Furchgott (who shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1998).
After earning his PhD, Schwartz successfully applied for a postdoctoral fellowship at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. While there, he attended a conference where he met Skou, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1997. Schwartz moved to Denmark under a second fellowship to work with Skou, and that’s when his interest in the workings of the heart really kicked into gear.
"I had a very good education, quite frankly,” recalls Schwartz. "I was lucky with the two postdoctoral fellowships, and then I was offered my first faculty position—in the pharmacology department at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. And my role model there? Dr. DeBakey.”
With DeBakey’s support, Schwartz moved up the ranks at Baylor and attracted plenty of attention along the way. "Word got around,” he recalls. "This guy Schwartz seems to present well; he communicates well. Of course I communicated well—I’m an actor!”
Schwartz, happy in Houston, spurned plenty of offers—including one from the same college of medicine that had said he was "too old” to pursue a PhD there. If he was tempted, DeBakey talked him into staying put. But one day, yet another academic health center beckoned. "DeBakey said, ‘I don’t want to lose you, but one of these days you’re gonna have to go,’” Schwartz recalls. "And what was that place? The University of Cincinnati.”
Schwartz brought his entire team to the Midwest, and has continued his award-winning research ever since. He points with pride to the Ariëns Award, which he received in 1994 from the Dutch Pharmacological Society. "It’s the simplest-looking diploma you can get,” he says, "but it means a lot to me.” He also won the Distinguished Investigator Award (1995) from the American College of Clinical Pharmacology and is a Fellow of the International Society for Heart Research.
In the middle of his fourth decade at UC, Schwartz retains his fascination with the workings of the heart and shows no signs of easing off from his research.
"There are no motor nerves to the heart at all,” he points out, "so it beats spontaneously. What are the ions that move to develop that? And then there’s contraction—what makes it contract? And then there’s relaxation. And then recovery. And this goes on for about 100 years.”
Along with his research, Schwartz relishes interaction with students and the occasional acting role (most recently co-starring in a production of "The Sunshine Boys”). He has nurtured hundreds of graduate and medical students and young faculty and is principal investigator for what has become, at 34 years, the longest-running continuing training grant supported by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
"The way we did research, and the way I still do it, is by team approach,” he says. "It’s hard work, and I certainly didn’t do it alone.”