National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Director talks about diversity, the future of science in challenging times

By Deborah Wormser

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) Director Dr. Gary H. Gibbons brought the subject of diversity home to members of the UT Southwestern Medical Center community in a Jan. 8 speech at UT Southwestern’s MLK Day of Celebration ceremony.

Specifically, the guest keynote speaker pointed to the biracial nature of the Dallas Heart Study, and gave special attention to its director, Dr. Helen Hobbs, who also is Director of the Eugene McDermott Center for Human Growth and Development. More than half of the 6,000 participants in the first large epidemiological study in North Texas were African-American. The study has gone through two rounds of meticulous data collection. Dr. Hobbs hopes to launch a third round in the near future.

As a result of that inclusiveness and attention to detail, the researchers involved identified a PCSK9 gene mutation that occurs in a small percentage of African-Americans that substantially reduces both levels of artery-clogging low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and heart disease risk. The multidisciplinary study is credited with laying the scientific groundwork for development of PCSK9 inhibitors, a potential new class of drugs now in Phase III clinical trials.

“I do think that in the end as we pursue excellence, a driver of that success story will be leveraging the diversity of this nation to pursue great science, asking great questions, that have great impact,” he said.

Dr. Gibbons, whose Institute is the second-largest funder in the National Institutes of Health (NIH), began his talk by listing the NHLBI’s priorities in light of the recent $175 million cut to its budget. They are the investigative mission, protecting the future (early-career researchers), and maintaining a balanced research portfolio across basic, translational, clinical, and population science.

He pointed to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing dramatic drops in heart disease rates in the population as a whole between 1958 and 2010 as an example of a success story that he consistently communicates to policymakers: How the NIH-funded basic research at UT Southwestern advanced our understanding of LDL cholesterol, paving the way for development of the blockbuster statin class of cholesterol-lowering drugs that helped reduce cardiovascular disease in the population.

“There are still some subsets in America that don’t participate equally (in those reductions, including) the southeast, Hispanics, and African-Americans,” he cautioned.

The reasons for those disparities are complex and undoubtedly involve the interplay of genetics and environmental factors such as lack of access to fruits and vegetables in the inner city “food deserts,” Dr. Gibbons explained.

“We probably can’t try to solve them with the so-called classical approach,” he said, explaining that complex problems will require a multidisciplinary systems approach.

Dr. Gibbons said that academic medical centers like UT Southwestern will need to provide leadership while reaching out into communities to create partnerships that leverage resources like political advocates as well as supporters in schools and churches.

He also suggested that crowd-sourced medical data may be the shape of research to come, specifically data gathered from cell phones, which can measure heart rate, physical activity, and sleep patterns. “That’s where there’s an opportunity for all of us in this beloved community, even those without degrees, to be actually the knowledge generators,” he said.


Dr. Hobbs, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, holds the Eugene McDermott Distinguished Chair for the Study of Human Growth and Development; the Philip O'Bryan Montgomery Jr., M.D., Distinguished Chair in Developmental Biology; and the [1995] Dallas Heart Ball Chair in Cardiology Research.

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