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June 2009 Issue

Daniel Drake Medal
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Cardiology Researcher, Physician Win 2009 Drake Medals

By Katie Pence
Published June 2009

A basic scientist and a clinician-researcher—both focused on advancing the field of cardiology—have been named 2009 Daniel Drake medalists.

The UC College of Medicine honored Jeffrey Robbins, PhD, and Paul Stein, MD, May 24 at a dinner and awards celebration named in honor of the college’s founder.

Considered to be the college’s highest honor, the Daniel Drake Medal is given annually to current faculty or alumni who have made outstanding or unique contributions to medical education, scholarship or research.

“Drs. Robbins and Stein embody the College of Medicine’s mission to improve health through best clinical practices and innovative research,” says David Stern, MD, College of Medicine dean and vice president for health affairs at UC.

“The College of Medicine has identified cardiovascular disease as a key focus moving forward and this year’s Daniel Drake medalists set strong examples of the kind of discovery we embrace and care we strive to provide.”

Jeffrey Robbins, PhD
Robbins serves as professor of pediatrics at UC and chief of the molecular cardiovascular biology division at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

He is also the associate chair for research cores and the executive co-director of the Heart Institute at Cincinnati Children’s.

Robbins received his doctoral degree in genetics and development in 1976 from the University of Connecticut and rose through the academic ranks, becoming professor of pharmacology and cell biophysics at the UC College of Medicine in 1987.

He has won a number of teaching and research awards, including the Golden Apple, awarded by the medical students for excellence in teaching, the Kaplan Award for innovative research, the National Research Achievement Award from the American Heart Associ-ation and the Presidential Award from the International Society for Heart Research. He also was an Established Investigator of the American Heart Association.

In 1993, Robbins moved to Cincinnati Children’s to start the new division of molecular cardiovascular biology, and in July 2009, formed the Cincinnati Children’s Heart Institute.

Robbins’ early work led to the development of tools that are currently used worldwide to affect the protein complement of the heart. His work has focused on understanding the behavior of both the normal contractile proteins and the mutations that cause cardiovascular disease.

Robbins has served on and chaired numerous national research review committees for the National Institutes of Health and the American Heart Association.

He currently serves on 12 editorial boards, is associate editor for the leading cardiovascular journal, Circulation Research, and is the cardiovascular section editor for the Annual Review of Physiology.

Paul Stein, MD
Stein is director of research education at St. Joseph Mercy Oakland Hospital in Pontiac, Mich., and professor, full-time affiliate, in the department of medicine at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit. He also serves as adjunct professor of medical physics at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich.

A native Cincinnatian, Stein attended Walnut Hills High School and graduated from UC with honors in 1955 with a bachelor’s degree in physics, and with a medical degree from the UC College of Medicine in 1959.

He completed fellowship training at the University of Cincinnati, Mount Sinai Hospital, New York, and at Bent Brigham Hospital (now Brigham and Women’s Hospital) in Boston. Stein was director of the cardiac catheterization laboratory at the University of Oklahoma from 1969 to 1973, was appointed professor of research medicine in 1973 and was director of bioengineering from 1973 to 1976. He then moved to Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit where, for 19 years, he was director of cardiovascular research.

Stein has been at St. Joseph Mercy Oakland Hospital since 2000.

Determination of the mechanism of heart sounds and applying this information to the bedside examination was one of Stein’s areas of research.

Through bench-top investigations with high-speed cinematography, investigations in animals, and then patients, he identified the primary source of vibrations productive of heart sounds. He showed that heart sounds are initiated by vibrations of the cardiac valves after closure.

To further study vibrations of the heart valves and other structures, Stein developed a method for taking X-ray movies at 2,000 frames per second.

For his contributions to engineering, he was made a Fellow in the American Society of Mechanical Engineering.  

Daniel Drake, MD (1785-1852), founded the UC College of Medicine in 1819. It is considered to be the oldest medical college west of the Allegheny Mountains.

Robbins Also Presented With UC’s George Rieveschl Jr. Award

Jeffrey Robbins, PhD, lives life in the fast lane—and that’s not just because he enjoys fast cars, like the Ferrari he drives into work on weekends.

“I’m much more comfortable being uncomfortable,” says Robbins. “In this field, you have to be brave enough to try new things.

“The worst mistake I see in scientists is not being brave enough to change.”

Robbins’ love for living on the edge—at least scientifically speaking—is what led to his worldwide recognition for the development of tools currently used to affect the protein balance in the heart.

It’s also what has earned him the 2009 George Rieveschl Jr. Award for Distinguished Scientific Research.

Robbins says he is honored to be placed into the same category as George Rieveschl, PhD, the pioneering UC researcher perhaps best known for inventing the allergy drug Benadryl, but it isn’t the recognition that inspires him every day.

“You don’t go into this business to win awards,” he says, smiling. “I have the best job in the world. I get paid to play.”

Robbins’ version of “play” means discovering the innovative tools used to help cardiac researchers understand the behavior of both the normal contractile proteins and the mutations that cause cardiovascular disease.

It was 1985 when Robbins came to UC as an associate professor of pharmacology and cell biophysics and began his heart research by looking at the embryos of chickens.

“There was no way to truly work with genetics using chicken embryos,” he says.

“In 1990, I started thinking about mammalian systems where we could focus on genetics. Without genetics, we couldn’t ask those cause-and-effect questions.”

Robbins says his scientific tactics revolved around central questions and the tools it took to answer them.
“If the tools were not available, then we just took the time to develop them,” he says simply.

Now, these tools, which cause the heart to synthesize normal and mutant proteins, are used in laboratories all over the world.

“We can turn the processes on and off at will, allowing us to establish cause-and-effect relationships between the mutant proteins and the development of cardiac disease,” Robbins explains.

Currently, Robbins and his team are doing basic research to find the similarities between neurodegenerative diseases—like Alzheimer’s—and heart failure.

“We found both types of diseases contain ‘unfolded’ proteins, or proteins that are not put together properly,” he says. “We want to discover why this occurs, stop them from injuring the cells and put them together properly ourselves, avoiding the defect.”

The team is also researching signaling pathways in congenital heart disease and ways to genetically modify them in addition to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, where part of the heart muscle thickens without an obvious cause and can cause death from sudden cardiac failure.

Robbins, who is also associate chair of research at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, says this recent research along with past findings will continue to change the way medicine is practiced in addition to impacting the lives of patients.

“It’s incredibly gratifying to know that what I do every day will improve the lives of people,” he says.

But Robbins, the scientific daredevil in him alive and thriving, says the key to research that truly makes a difference is constant modification and “never being too afraid to try something new.”

“If you stay static in a field such as this, you’re finished,” he says.

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