NIH scientist transforming treatment of sickle cell disease


(Photo: National Institute of Health)
August 5

Dr. Griffin Rodgers spends most of his waking hours leading the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), but he also manages to carve out time to work on a life-long passion – discovering a cure for sickle cell disease.

Long before becoming the director of NIDDK, Rodgers was credited with discovering the first effective therapy for sickle cell disease, an inherited blood disorder that affects more than 90,000 Americans, most of them African-Americans. The disease, which affects millions of people throughout the world, can damage bones, joints and internal organs, cause acute and chronic pain, and often result in premature death.

Prior to his discovery of a drug treatment in the 1990s, the only options for sickle cell patients were blood transfusions for pain and supportive care.

This initial breakthrough has been followed by the recent announcement that Rodgers and a team of National Institutes of Health (NIH) researchers have developed a modified blood stem-cell transplant regimen that is highly effective in reversing sickle cell disease in adults. The findings, based on a clinical trial of 30 patients, represent a potentially transformative treatment.

Dr. Neal Young, chief of NIH’s Hematology Branch of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, said Rodgers has been “the driving force” behind the advanced medical treatments for people with sickle cell disease. His work, said Young, is “a very big deal” because it will save the lives and alleviate the suffering of thousands of people.

Dr. Thomas Starzl, a physician and researcher who performed the world’s first liver transplant, wholeheartedly concurred.

“Griffin Rodgers’ work on sickle cell disease has been revolutionary,” said Starzl. “I can only give him rave reviews–five stars.”

Rodgers grew up in New Orleans where he had three high school friends who became debilitated with sickle cell disease. Two of those friends died in their teenage years and the third passed away a few years after high school.

These deaths left a tremendous impression on Rodgers, who pursued a medical career that led him to NIH in 1984 where he began his work on sickle cell disease. Over the years as he made his mark in the laboratory and the clinical setting, Rodgers also progressed through the managerial ranks, heading NIDDK’s Molecular and Clinical Hematology Branch starting in 1998, becoming deputy director of NIDDK in 2001 and director of the institute in 2007.

“I am passionate about medicine and scientific discovery,” said Rodgers. “And public service has been with me since early days. My father was a science and physical education instructor in high school and my mother was a public health nurse, so public service public service is in my DNA.”

In his current high-profile role, Rodgers manages 600 people, a $2 billion budget, oversees grants to scientists, laboratory research and clinical trials on diseases that encompass some of the most common, severe and disabling conditions affecting Americans. These include diabetes and obesity, digestive diseases, kidney and urologic diseases such as kidney failure and prostate enlargement, and blood diseases.

In the past year alone, the scientists at the institute have made some startling discoveries, including a new class of genes involved in the maturation of pancreatic cells that produce insulin; a protein found in the brain that regulates body weight and may be associated with obesity in humans; and the demonstration of smartphone-based “artificial pancreas” prototype for management of type 1 diabetes.

Rodgers said it is his job to understand what is happening in the various fields of medicine that come under his purview, to “rely on bright ideas and vision of the investigators working in these areas” and carve out money to fund their research and “get ahead of emerging problems.”

“I have a sense of real optimism about the medical advances that we have in front of us. There is really no time in history that we have been better prepared to make major breakthroughs in understanding diseases and targeting therapies,” said Rodgers.

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to the Fed Page of The Washington Post to read about other federal workers who are making a difference. To recommend a Federal Player of the Week, contact us at fedplayers@ourpublicservice.org.

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