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Dr Garret A FitzGerald, UCD Graduate, awarded RDS Boyle Medal, in association with The Irish Times.

Dr. Garret A. FitzGerald
Dr. Garret A. FitzGerald

It was probably inevitable that some day experts would tell us that quite apart from what we eat; how and when we eat can have significant impact on our health in general and specifically on the progress of diseases such as diabetes.

When the “expert” is a leading world figure in pharmacology of the calibre of UCD graduate Garret A FitzGerald, it’s time to sit up and take notice.

It began when Professor FitzGerald, Chairman of University of Pennsylvania Department of Pharmacology discovered a molecular clock in the heart and blood vessels and described for the first time how a master clock in the brain can use a hormone to control activity in these peripheral clocks.

This master clock is located in the brain in an area called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, clusters of neurons in the hypothalamus. Many of our basic functions such as regulating body temperature and hormone levels vary throughout the day and night. Some of these changes may relate to being asleep or awake but others are under the control of a biochemical timepiece that sets and resets daily.

Further research showed that the scientists could affect many metabolic genes by deactivating the clock genes. In other words the body’s metabolism and natural reaction to undertake activities such as absorbing excess sugar in the blood after eating could be altered by “telling” the genes that it was night rather than day or vice versa.

So changing eating patterns such as grazing throughout the day could have a direct impact on the rising incidence of diseases such as diabetes when there is too much sugar and hypoglycaemia when there is too little sugar in the blood.

For sufferers of type-2 diabetes it may ultimately be possible to disable the clock gene so that the body can absorb more sugar from the blood. How the clock genes work is as yet unclear but according to Dr FitzGerald, altering when fat calories are eaten might be exploited to reduce the likelihood of inducing diabetes.

Garrett FitzGerald is a strong proponent of translational medicine and therapeutics. “We must project basic science into the domain of clinical medicine and emphasize the objective to discover new and safer therapeutic entities”

In recent years Dr FitzGerald provided early warnings on the COX-2 blockbuster arthritis drugs such as Vioxx and Celebrex, which were largely ignored by industry with the result that several brought to market were subsequently withdrawn as they could cause heart attacks.

COX-2 inhibitors are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) which avoid the gastric side affect problems often associated with such drugs.

Dr. FitzGerald showed that COX-2 inhibitors effectively shut off biochemical signals in the body that form fats called prostaglandins such as prostacyclin which protects the heart. Standing up to the might of the drug companies, FitzGerald presented his findings to the world and eventually to a hearing of the US Government’s FDA (Food and Drugs Administration). Although Dr FitzGerald did not advocate the withdrawal of the COX-2 drugs, he called on the pharma-industry to take a science-based approach to their definition and management of risk. Thankfully the outcome resulted in the Damascene conversion of companies such as Merck who now work alongside him better to target their drugs further down the prostaglandin chain so as to avoid possibly fatal side effects.

Using science to challenge what we know and believe has been a hallmark of Garret FitzGerald since the early 1980’s when he contributed substantially to the development of low dose aspirin for cardioprotection and began work on developing a fundamental understanding of the role of arachidonic acid metabolites in inflammation and atherothrombosis.The fundamental importance of his work has changed how we practice medicine and develop drugs.

The contribution of Garret FitzGerald to scientific discovery - specifically, his work on non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) including low dose aspirin and COX-2 inhibitors - was recognised by the Royal Dublin Society in the awarding of the Boyle Medal in association with the Irish Times.

Inaugurated in 1899 the Boyle Medal is presented to outstanding scientists. Professor Des Fitzgerald, Vice-President for Research at UCD, spoke of Garret FitzGerald’s enormous contribution to mankind. “He encapsulates the qualities of basic scientific discovery with an ability to translate research into clinical therapies that save lives and greatly improve the quality of life for millions of patients suffering from chronic diseases. UCD is indeed proud to rank him among our alumni”. Dr FitzGerald was bestowed an Honorary Degree DSc by UCD in 2004.

The RDS/Irish Times Boyle Medal

In 1899 the Royal Dublin Society inaugurated a medal for scientific research of exceptional merit. Since 1998 The Boyle medal for scientific excellence has been a joint venture between the Royal Dublin Society and the Irish Times. It is awarded biennially - alternatively to a researcher based in Ireland (who receives a cash prize to fund a PhD student) and to an Irish researcher based abroad. The award is judged by an international panel.

Since its inception over 100 years ago, the Boyle Medal has been awarded to 31 distinguished scientists, including George Johnstone Stoney, John Joly and Sir Howard Grubb.  This year the Medal is awarded to Dr Garret FitzGerald whose research has attracted international acclaim.

The medal is named after Robert Boyle (1627-1691) “the son of the Earl of Corke and the father of Chemistry.” Born in Lismore, Co Waterford, Boyle spent much of his youth traveling throughout Europe. Although never a university student or don, he spent many years in Oxford and in Stalbridge, an estate in England left to him by his father. In 1661, while arguing specifically against a Jesuit scientist, Franciscus Linus, who claimed, not that ordinary atmospheric air does not have any pressure (a spring), but that its pressure was not sufficiently powerful for it to do all the things it does in fact do. So Boyle decided on an experiment to show the way in which, as we would say, the pressure and the volume of the air vary, when the air is, in Boyle's words, either ‘compressed or dilated.’ From his work stems the subsequent law that holds for ideal gases and can be summarized as PV=k, where k is a constant and P and V are pressure and volume respectively. The volume of his life’s work led to the notion of elements and compounds and he is credited with almost single-handedly wrestling chemistry from the clutches of the alchemists and with propounding the experimental method on which all modern science is based.

Career summary of Garret A FitzGerald, 2005 recipient of the RDS Boyle Medal

Garret A. FitzGerald, M.D.
University of Pennsylvania
Professor of Medicine
Elmer Bobst Professor of Pharmacology

Chair, Department of Pharmacology
Director, Institute for Translational Medicine & Therapeutics

Member, Graduate Group in Pharmacological Sciences
Member, Genomics Graduate Group
1974 M.B., B.Ch. University College, Dublin
1979 M.Sc. (Statistics) School of Hygiene, University of London
1980 M.D. (Pharmacology) University College, Dublin

Awards, Honors, Membership in Honorary Societies:

  • Established Investigator, American Heart Association (1985-1990)
  • Chair, Biochemistry II Study Section, NIH (1989-1990)
  • Chair, Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology Council, AHA (2000-2001)
  • Member, Association of American Physicians (1989)
  • Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science (1998)
  • Member, American Society for Clinical Investigation (1986)
  • D.Sc. (Hon Causa), University of Edinburgh (2004)
  • D.Sc. (Hon Causa), University College Dublin (2004)

Research areas:

  • The Pharmacology of COX Inhibition
  • Eicosanoid Receptor Biology
  • Isoeicosanoids
  • Peripheral molecular clocks.

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