Date: May 14, 2012
“I was one of the rare happy medical students,” says hematologist Neal S. Young ’71 of his days at Hopkins. “Most people slog through the first couple of years—they hate anatomy or biology—and I loved it all. I always wanted to be a doctor and I felt I was doing what I wanted to do.”
Now chief of the NIH’s National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute’s Intramural Research Hematology Branch, Young has had a profound impact on his specialty—and enjoys every minute of his work. “I love my job and the NIH,” he says, noting that he has enormous “intellectual freedom” to pursue research down whatever path he wishes while also having direct contact with patients.
Many of those patients are doing so well precisely because of research Young has directed. For example, he and his colleagues have developed and pioneered the use of new treatments for aplastic anemia, a rare affliction that strikes 600 to 900 Americans annually. It attacks their bone marrow, wiping out red cells, white cells, and platelets. Forty years ago, when Young graduated from Hopkins, almost every patient stricken with severe aplastic anemia died within a few months. Today, more than 70 percent of them survive.
Young’s basic science investigations into cell biology, molecular biology, virology, and immunology have led to advances against other villains. His laboratory identified the B19 parvovirus, which infects bone marrow cells, and has developed a vaccine against it that currently is undergoing clinical trials. He also is concentrating now on “telomere diseases, a whole new class of molecular diseases that are based on the loss of telomeres,” the protective ends of chromosomes that have been a central focus of the work of Hopkins Nobel laureate Carol Greider. His lab has been the first to demonstrate pathogenic mutations in TERT, the gene for the telomerase enzyme that Greider discovered.
When Young joined the NIH in the mid-1970s, he studied protein biochemistry with Nobel laureate Christian Anfinsen. He subsequently established an independent section to delve into bone marrow failure. Young’s wide-ranging inquiries have also involved basic and clinical research on gene therapy for blood diseases, and the transplanting of stem cells. His oeuvre includes some 270 peer-reviewed journal articles, more than 120 book chapters and reviews, and 10 medical and scientific textbooks, including Clinical Hematology, published in 2006. Neil A. Grauer