Research clinician prized for his efforts in scientific discovery
An Irish medic has helped revolutionise how we treat heart attacks with his research on aspirin
Honours are being showered upon Garret FitzGerald. Nearly four decades after he graduated from UCD medical school, the Dublin-born research clinician and chairman of the department of pharmacology at the University of Pennsylvania has won four major awards this year.
The Grand Prix Lefoulon-Delalande was conferred beneath the dome of the Institut de France, where the Académie Francaise convenes, on June 5th. It carries €500,000 in prize money and is considered the world’s most prestigious award for cardiovascular research.
FitzGerald shared it with his Italian colleague, Carlo Patrono, who chairs the pharmacology department at the Catholic University in Rome.
The two scientists met 30 years ago at a conference in Florida and, in FitzGerald’s words, “competed and collaborated” for the following decade in research on the use of low-dose aspirin to prevent cardiovascular disease. Because of illness in the family, FitzGerald’s prize was collected by his son John, the eldest of his and his wife Kate’s three children.
FitzGerald attended Belvedere College in Dublin. He met Kate at UCD, trained at St Vincent’s and the Mater hospitals and moved to the department of clinical pharmacology at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School in London. “It was the time of the IRA campaigns,” he recalls.
“Not a day passed without someone reminding you that you were Irish. I asked if I could ever become a professor of pharmacology in Britain, and after a long pause the department head said, ‘Perhaps’. I thought, ‘We’re out of here’.”
FitzGerald was fascinated by the effect of aspirin on prostaglandins, the lipids or fats that cause blood to clot, but which also cause platelets to aggregate and block arteries. It was 1979.
With their two small children – a third was born in the United States – the FitzGeralds moved to Nashville. He began his post-doctoral degree, and 11 years later became the head of the pharmacology division at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tennessee.
The “economic challenge” is an important reason why so few doctors go into academic medicine, FitzGerald says.
“We lived very frugally. We slept on the floor for three years. I almost waited tables. It’s a huge sacrifice for a medical doctor . . . You see your peers driving large cars, knowing they’ll be successful.
“Doing research is like pursuing your muse in music or the arts. A minority of scientists discover one big thing, the way that only a few musicians or painters leave something that survives the test of time.”
FitzGerald says he could not have achieved all he has without Kate. It has been “a two-person-effort, one-person-award scene . . . I had someone who shared the sacrifice and enabled me to do it.”
He is infinitely grateful for his wife’s “courage, willingness to sublimate her own career, tenacity and focus on the goals of my work”.
The scientists who discovered that aspirin blocks the enzyme that gives rise to prostaglandins did so in a test tube, and won a Nobel prize. “To translate that into practical use, you need to know how it works in humans,” FitzGerald explains.