Horton named Chief of Digestive and Liver Diseases

By Debbie Bolles

Dr. Horton
Jay Horton, M.D.

Dr. Jay Horton, a physician-scientist whose research led to the development of a cholesterol-lowering drug now in clinical trials by multiple pharmaceutical companies, has been named Chief of Digestive and Liver Diseases at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

Dr. Horton, also Professor of Molecular Genetics, has served as Interim Chief of this Internal Medicine division since June 2012. He succeeds Dr. Don Rockey.

The Division of Digestive and Liver Diseases, with more than 35 faculty members, treats and does research on inflammatory bowel disease, pancreatic disease, and liver diseases – key clinical segments that Dr. Horton plans to grow into true "centers of excellence" at UT Southwestern.

"We'll be working on that over the next few years to expand our capabilities, both clinically and through research, to develop those programs," Dr. Horton said. "We're also expanding our faculty across all aspects of GI and liver disease to accommodate growth in our clinical practice and in the two new hospitals under construction."

Another of Dr. Horton's goals is the recruitment and development of new faculty to maintain UT Southwestern's scientific momentum.

"One of our greatest challenges is figuring out a way to attract new young people into the field and develop them so that they can be successful," he said.

Dr. David Johnson, Chairman of Internal Medicine, said Dr. Horton's selection should come as no surprise for those familiar with him.

"He is an outstanding physician-scientist, talented clinician, and inspiring mentor to trainees and junior faculty. I am confident that his many skills, wisdom, and vision will inspire the division to even greater achievements in the coming years," Dr. Johnson said.

A UT Southwestern faculty member since 1997, Dr. Horton earned his medical degree from the University of Iowa in 1988. He then came to UT Southwestern to complete an internal medicine residency, a gastroenterology fellowship, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute fellowship in Molecular Genetics.

Dr. Horton's research focuses on understanding why fat accumulates in the liver and causes liver disease. In 2003, his laboratory team reported that the protein PCSK9 regulates "bad" low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels in the blood by working almost exclusively outside cells. This finding paved the way for development of multiple antibody-based therapies to reduce blood cholesterol levels.

"The gratifying part of that is now there are compounds in clinical trials, and it looks like they are going to be very potent in lowering LDL cholesterol," Dr. Horton said.

In a related research area, Dr. Horton's team also studies the metabolic and molecular changes that cause fat to accumulate in the liver, a condition associated with obesity and diabetes that can lead to liver failure.

Dr. Horton will continue serving as Director of the Internal Medicine Physician Scientist Training Program, as Co-Director of the Mouse Phenotyping Core, and as a member of the Internal Medicine Resident Selection Committee. In addition, he will continue to coordinate the efforts of a UT Southwestern obesity research team whose work has gotten national notice.

"He has a proven ability to organize large multidisciplinary research programs and to manage complicated clinical and scientific programs," said Dr. Helen Hobbs, Director of the Eugene McDermott Center for Human Growth and Development, who works with Dr. Horton on the Obesity Task Force. "Moreover, he is a terrific gastroenterologist and will set a great example for the clinicians in the Department."

As a child, Dr. Horton spent a lot of time in hospitals watching his father fight a rare form of cancer that eventually took his life. That experience prompted his interest in science and medicine.

On occasional weekends, the Iowa native decompresses by shifting back to his country roots, tending to a vegetable garden, four miniature donkeys, and farmland that he and his wife own north of Denton. When Monday morning rolls around, he's back in physician-scientist mode facing the daily challenges of the job.

"In the end, you hope you've made a difference, whether in basic science research or clinically," Dr. Horton said.

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Dr. Hobbs 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 Dallas Heart Ball Chair in Cardiology Research.

Dr. Horton holds the Dr. Robert C. and Veronica Atkins Chair in Obesity & Diabetes Research.

Dr. Johnson holds the Donald W. Seldin Distinguished Chair in Internal Medicine.

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