UT Southwestern Geneticist to Receive Pearl Meister Greengard Prize
News Oct 06, 2015
UT Southwestern Medical Center geneticist Dr. Helen Hobbs is the 2015 recipient of the prestigious Pearl Meister Greengard Prize. The prize recognizes Dr. Hobbs’ research, which advances understanding of heart disease and other complex disorders.
The work of Dr. Hobbs, Director of the Eugene McDermott Center for Human Growth and Development at UT Southwestern and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, is credited with leading to new therapeutics to lower LDL cholesterol.
The international award from Rockefeller, which celebrates the achievements of outstanding women in biomedical science, was established by Dr. Paul Greengard, a biophysicist and Vincent Astor Professor at the university, and his wife, Ursula von Rydingsvard, a sculptor. The $100,000 annual prize is named in honor of Dr. Greengard’s mother, who died giving birth to him. It is funded by Dr. Greengard’s donation of his monetary share of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Medicine, as well as donations from other generous Rockefeller supporters.
“Dr. Hobbs’ work is nothing short of inspirational – she is unraveling the genetic underpinnings of cardiovascular disease and changing the way we look at one of the most common, complex health issues of our time,” said Dr. Greengard.
Since 1999, Dr. Hobbs has led the Dallas Heart Study, a longitudinal, multiethnic, population-based investigation of risk factors underlying cardiovascular disease, the nation’s leading cause of death for both men and women. The study, originally funded by the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, involves thousands of participants and the meticulous collection of data on traits that could be linked to genes involved in heart disease.
“Dr. Hobbs is an outstanding physician-scientist and a highly respected member of our faculty. Her insights as a clinician have guided the direction of expertise gained through rigorous basic science training to address truly important questions at the focal point of the most important medical challenges of our day,” said Dr. Daniel K. Podolsky, President of UT Southwestern.
“The Dallas Heart Study which she conceived and has led since its inception, encompassing a carefully characterized cohort of individuals that reflect the full diversity of our population followed over time, has proved to be a virtually unique and powerful resource to define the genetic basis of human biology and disease, including mechanisms controlling cholesterol and triglyceride metabolism. Through the application of the power of genetics, the Dallas Heart Study will undoubtedly continue to be an engine for discovery for decades to come,” added Dr. Podolsky, who holds the Philip O’Bryan Montgomery, Jr., M.D. Distinguished Presidential Chair in Academic Administration, and the Doris and Bryan Wildenthal Distinguished Chair in Medical Science.
“This is a wonderful honor,” said Dr. Hobbs, also Professor of Internal Medicine and Molecular Genetics. “This prize recognizes the work I have done with Professor of Internal Medicine, Dr. Jonathan Cohen, and the many terrific students and fellows in my laboratory.
“I also want to thank my colleagues and mentors for UT Southwestern’s collaborative, intellectually stimulating environment. Special thanks to Chairman Emeritus of Internal Medicine Dr. Donald Seldin, who single-handedly changed the course of my career by suggesting I try basic research, and Nobel Laureates Dr. Michael Brown and Dr. Joseph Goldstein, for the tough, rigorous yet supportive environment in which I trained as a scientist,” added Dr. Hobbs, who holds the Philip O’Bryan Montgomery Jr., M.D., Distinguished Chair in Developmental Biology, the Eugene McDermott Distinguished Chair for the Study of Human Growth and Development, and the  Dallas Heart Ball Chair in Cardiology Research.
At a time when the scientific community was focused on identifying common genetic variations that impact human health, Dr. Hobbs and Dr. Cohen - with whom she runs a joint laboratory - designed the genetics section of the Dallas Heart Study to test the hypothesis that rare or low-frequency genetic variants might prove promising in the study of heart disease and other complex disorders. Their rare variant approach is now emulated by researchers worldwide.
Using that approach, they identified a rare variant found in a small percentage of African-Americans. They reported that individuals who have one copy of that genetic variant, which inactivates the PCSK9 gene, have a 28 percent reduction in LDL cholesterol - the cholesterol type linked to heart disease. These individuals, who have lower LDL from birth, have a striking 88 percent reduction in heart disease compared to those without the rare variant.
Next, Drs. Hobbs and Cohen identified a study participant’s daughter who carries two of the inactivating PCSK9 mutations. Her plasma LDL cholesterol level is exceedingly low (14 mg/dL) and yet she is very healthy.
These findings are credited with sparking a race among pharmaceutical companies to develop cholesterol-lowering PCSK9 inhibitors. The FDA recently approved the first two drugs in that class, aimed at patients who are either unable to take cholesterol-lowering statin drugs or unable to reach cholesterol goals with them.
A UT Southwestern faculty member since 1987, Dr. Hobbs majored in human biology at Stanford University and earned her medical degree at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland. The Boston native completed an internship in internal medicine at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City before coming to UT Southwestern in 1980, where she finished her clinical training and served as chief resident in internal medicine at Parkland Memorial Hospital.
Dr. Hobbs made the transition to physician-scientist at the urging of her UT Southwestern mentor, Dr. Seldin. He had recommended she pursue basic research in the joint laboratory of Dr. Brown, now Director of the Erik Jonsson Center for Research in Molecular Genetics and Human Disease, and Dr. Goldstein, Chairman of Molecular Genetics. During her time in their laboratory, her mentors won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1985 for their discovery of the underlying mechanisms of cholesterol metabolism, which led to the development of the blockbuster statin class of drugs.
Among Dr. Hobbs’ many honors, she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2007, to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2006, and to the National Academy’s Institute of Medicine (now the National Academy of Medicine) in 2004. Other honors include the American Heart Association’s Clinical Research Prize, the Heinrich Wieland Prize, the American Heart Association Distinguished Scientist Award, and the inaugural Prize in Atherosclerosis Research from the International Atherosclerosis Society.
The Greengard Prize will be presented to Dr. Hobbs by television host and political commentator Rachel Maddow. Past presenters include former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, author Joan Didion, broadcast journalist Andrea Mitchell, and the former president of Ireland, Mary Robinson. As part of the award ceremony, Dr. Hobbs will deliver Rockefeller’s Women in Science lecture on Nov. 18.
In treating inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), physicians can have a hard time telling which newly diagnosed patients have a high risk of severe inflammation or what therapies will be most effective. Now researchers report finding an epigenetic signature in patient cells that appears to predict inflammation risk in a serious type of IBD called Crohn’s disease.