This is the first in a series of profiles on the 2012 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal finalists. The awards, presented by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, recognize outstanding federal employees whose important, behind-the-scenes work is advancing the health, safety and well-being of Americans and are among the most prestigious honors given to civil servants. This profile features a finalist for the Science and Environment Medal, Dr. Neal Young, Chief of the Hematology Branch, National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute at the National Institutes of Health.
Dr. Neal Young is the world’s leading expert in the field of bone marrow failure, engaging in groundbreaking research that has led to life-saving treatments for a rare and deadly blood disorder known as aplastic anemia.
In his work at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Young has combined pioneering basic laboratory science, clinical research protocols, and direct patient care to save the lives of thousands of people suffering from a blood disorder that wipes out the cells in the bone marrow, including red blood cells that carry oxygen, white blood cells that fight infection and platelets that help clot the blood.
Young conceived, designed and headed the first multi-center clinical trial in the United States for immunosuppressive therapy for aplastic anemia. The regimen he developed for this blood disease has become standard therapy for patients all over the world. This disease strikes about 600 to 900 people a year in the United States, and thousands across the globe.
“Neal has completed an amazing series of landmark clinical trials and published results that have taken what was a fatal disease in the early 1980s to one that now has a survival rate of 80 percent or more in the long-term,” said Dr. Cynthia Dunbar of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute at NIH.
Because of Young’s efforts, his clinic at NIH is today considered one of the world’s major referral centers for patients with bone marrow failure syndromes, including aplastic anemia. His clinic follows many hundreds of patients from North and South America, Asia and Africa.
As chief of the Hematology Branch of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, Young is continually building on his significant accomplishments. He developed an understanding of how the highly contagious B19 parvovirus infects cells of the bone marrow and showed its role in disease among patients, especially those with sickle cell anemia and others with defective immune systems. He developed ways to test for and diagnose this virus, came up with a treatment and currently has a vaccine in clinical trials that, if successful, will protect vulnerable patients.
Young also has made landmark discoveries linking genetic defects-mutations or mistakes in the DNA sequence-to the break down in cells and as a cause of aplastic anemia. He has determined through laboratory tests that sex hormones can prevent the cell damage, and he is now moving these findings into human clinical trials.
In addition, Young has implicated the same type of genetic mutations linked to aplastic anemia much more broadly to liver cirrhosis, lung fibrosis and leukemia. These findings may offer clues to improving treatment and patient outcomes for these common and devastating diseases.
Dr. Ching-Hon Pui, chairman of the Department of Oncology at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Tennessee, said Young’s work in hematology “has totally transformed the field.”
“His impact has been truly global,” said Pui. “I cannot think of another hematologist with comparable accomplishments.”
Dr. Robert Gallo, a biomedical researcher who played a major role in the discovery of the virus that causes AIDS, said Young is “at the forefront of the field of aplastic anemia.” He said Young has made significant contributions at the “fundamental research level, in the clinical setting and at the therapeutic level.”
In addition to heading the NIH Hematology Branch, Young is the director of NIH Center for Human Immunology, Autoimmunity and Inflammation.
This center is dedicated to gaining a better understanding of how the immune system and inflammation affect a wide variety of common disorders, including cancer, atherosclerosis, rheumatic syndromes and neurologic degeneration. The center pulls in NIH experts from a wide variety of disciplines to share information and find commonalities that might help spur new treatments.
Young also spends time training physician-scientists in the conduct of large-scale research, with his trainees now heading departments of hematology in Asia, Europe and South America, as well as the United States. One of his training programs is located in Vietnam, where he has transformed that country’s approach to blood diseases.
Young said the NIH gives him great “intellectual freedom” to follow the science, undertake a wide range of investigations and engage in “transformative work” that provides benefits to the medical community and society.
He said it is quite fulfilling to work as a physician treating and personally helping individual patients, to learn from these experiences and then to use that knowledge to “help hundreds if not thousands of other people.”
“I get great satisfaction seeing patients doing so much better,” said Young.