UCSF Pediatrician Wins Award for Infant Lung Treatment

April 08, 2008
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Dr. John A. Clements, a pediatric pulmonologist at UCSF Children's Hopsital, won the 2008 Pollin Prize for his seminal contributions to the understanding of how lungs hold air, and to the development of a lifesaving treatment for respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) in infants.

Once this country's largest contributor to infant mortality, neonatal RDS now causes very few deaths.

The sixth annual $200,000 Pollin Prize, the largest international award for pediatric research, recognizes outstanding achievement in biomedical or public health research resulting in important improvements to the health of children.

Half of the award will be provided by Clements to support the research of an investigator chosen by him. He has selected Dr. Magda Petryniak, a neonatologist at UCSF Children's Hospital. Her research focuses on a relevant area of neonatology — the development of the brain, its responses to injury and mechanisms for repair in newborn infants.

Clements is professor of pediatrics emeritus, Julius H. Comroe, Jr., M.D., chair in Pulmonary Biology Emeritus and retired member of the Graduate Program in Biophysics at UCSF.

The April 4 awards ceremony was held at the Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital of NewYork-Presbyterian Wintergarden.

Dr. Herbert Pardes, president and CEO of New York-Presbyterian Hospital, said, "In the 1950s and earlier, respiratory distress syndrome, sometimes referred to as 'hyaline membrane disease,' was the most common cause of infant death, resulting in 30,000 deaths each year in the United States. Today, this number has been reduced by 97 percent. This amazing improvement is a direct result of research breakthroughs by Dr. John Clements. His insights have helped us to understand the essential role of pulmonary surfactant in normal lung function, a discovery that led to an effective treatment for RDS and the genesis of a new area of pulmonary biology."

Replacement surfactant is now a standard therapy for premature infants in most countries, and it is also being examined for its applicability to other diseases, such as adult RDS, asthma, cystic fibrosis and pneumonia.

Dr. Rudolph Leibel, chair of the selection panel that coordinates the administration of the Pollin Prize, said, "It is our intent that the prize both recognizes outstanding and important biomedical research, and encourages others to pursue research that specifically benefits children."

Leibel is co-director of the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center, chief of the Division of Molecular Genetics, and professor of pediatrics and medicine at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. He also is a pediatrician at Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital of NewYork-Presbyterian.

Lifesaving Discovery

After graduating in 1947 from Cornell University Medical College (now Weill Medical College of Cornell University), Clements joined its Physiology Department as a research fellow and instructor. Two years later, at the U.S. Army Medical Research Laboratory at Edgewood Arsenal, Md., he developed an interest in pulmonary function and began to elucidate the physical and chemical properties of a previously unknown natural material he named "lung surfactant."

Clements' pioneering application of biochemistry to respiratory mechanics paved the way for research that described the lipid-protein substance and its role in maintaining the expansion of the lung's air spaces. His findings also led directly to the discovery in 1959 that surfactant was missing from the lungs of infants with RDS who had died and to later efforts that developed surfactant substitutes.

Since joining the UCSF faculty in 1960, Clements has worked closely with its neonatologists to incorporate physiological concepts and methods into the care of severely ill newborns; to develop one of the world's first intensive care nurseries; and to train many fellows who have become leaders in academic medical centers around the world.

In addition, he has been active throughout his career in editorial duties for scientific journals and in service to professional societies.

He continues to work at UCSF several days a week, writing, editing, consulting and working with colleagues to complete research on surface tension in the lung’s airways — research that may have numerous clinical applications.

Clements has received dozens of honors, including the Christopher Columbus Discovery Award of the National Institutes of Health; career investigators of the American Heart Association for 29 years; Research Achievement Award of the American Heart Association; Warren Alpert Foundation Prize at Harvard Medical School; Apgar Award of the American Academy of Pediatrics; Trudeau Medal of the American Lung Association; fellow of the American College of Chest Physicians; Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; and the Ulf von Euler Memorial Lecture of the Karolinska Institute at the Nobel Foundation.

Clements has given invited lectures at and received honorary doctorates from universities in North and South America, Asia, United Kingdom and Europe. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, American Academy of Arts and Sciences and Royal College of Physicians of London, and an honorary life member of several medical societies in North and South America.

Created in memory of Linda and Kenneth Pollin, and administered by NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, the Pollin Prize consists of a $100,000 award to the recipient or recipients and a $100,000 fellowship stipend to be awarded by the recipient or recipients to a young investigator, selected by the recipients, who is working in a related area. The stipend is intended to support a substantial portion of salary and laboratory expenses for two years.

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