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march/april 2011

Visionary

Relating Research to Patients

Interview with Robert Nussenblatt, M.D., M.P.H.

By Allyson T. Collins, M.S.
Science Writer/Editor

Robert Nussenblatt, M.D., M.P.H.
Robert Nussenblatt, M.D., M.P.H.
Chief, Laboratory of Immunology
National Eye Institute

In his 33 years since taking up residence at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Robert Nussenblatt, M.D., M.P.H., has held more than a dozen posts, from clinical director of the National Eye Institute (NEI) to associate director of the new NIH Center for Human Immunology. Though his business cards have varied, his commitments to advancing medicine and educating the medical community have remained consistent.

In a recent interview, Nussenblatt discusses his career path, his scientific perspective, and his interest in understanding inflammatory eye disease.

When did your fascination with science begin?

I enjoyed science projects starting as far back as junior high school. In my undergraduate years and medical school, laboratory work was of interest to me when I could see the value to advancing human medicine. Autoimmune disease, in particular, intrigued me because that area of science had--and still has--poorly defined mechanisms that are very important to human health. When I finished medical school, it seemed natural to pursue a career involving immune-mediated eye problems. I was attracted to the advantage of doing both surgery and medicine on one organ--to be the total doctor.

Why have you chosen to spend your entire career at NIH?

I came to NIH immediately after finishing my residency in ophthalmology at the New York University Medical Center. I wanted to have the experience of performing patient-related research and developing models that were relevant to human disease. Along with my research, I initially continued to see patients under the guidance of Dr. David Cogan, a renowned clinician and scientist working at NEI. In addition, I had the wonderful support of Dr. Igal Gery and Dr. David BenEzra, who helped me develop my laboratory skills. In my 33 years here, I have held many positions within NEI and other areas of NIH. I did not make a conscious decision to stay here--I became caught up in the excitement and potential of the science.

"I did not make a conscious decision to stay [at the NIH]," Nussenblatt says. "I became caught up in the excitement and potential of the science."

How have your various roles provided you with different perspectives of scientific research?

As NEI clinical director for seven years and scientific director for nine years, I had the opportunity to interact with colleagues from many disciplines, while also learning about the administrative aspects of science. I gained a perspective on how to mold and guide areas of research within given restraints, financial and otherwise. As president of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology, I was exposed to the entire field of ocular research, and had the opportunity to enhance global vision research. In my current position as chief of the NEI Laboratory of Immunology, I am surrounded by colleagues who are highly regarded worldwide. That makes my job easy. We make decisions together, as if it is a family discussion. Our greatest challenge right now is to attract the leaders of tomorrow. We are finding that inflammation continues to be at the center of many eye diseases, so NEI must remain active in this area.

Where are you focusing your current clinical practice and research at NEI?

The condition uveitis has been the focal point of my research and clinical work for my entire career. Uveitis is an inflammatory eye disease, which we can see by just looking inside the eye. Uveitis usually affects children and young adults, and can be sight-threatening. We are constantly exploring new methods to better treat patients who have uveitis by performing clinical trials of different therapies. Through our work, we have also expanded the concept of inflammatory eye disease to include age-related macular degeneration, or AMD, a leading cause of visual impairment and blindness in older Americans. Our studies show that there are profound changes in the immune characteristics of AMD patients.

What do you consider to be your most significant career accomplishment to date?

I am very lucky to have the opportunity to train young physicians and translational researchers, who are our messengers and ambassadors to the future of medicine. I, myself, found mentors who were enthusiastic, open to teaching, and anxious for my participation, and I have tried to impart those virtues to my trainees. My gratification also comes from finding ways to better understand human disease and, ultimately, identifying more effective ways to treat patients.

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