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Eric Schmidt, MD

Assistant Professor

As the son of a father with a serious chronic illness, Eric Schmidt came to understand the power of a good bedside manner at an early age.

“Dad was sick. Mom was worried. And somehow, these doctors made us feel better,” recalls Schmidt, who grew up in the steel town of Bethlehem, PA and spent many anxious nights in the hospital cafeteria. It was there, around age 10, that he spotted those same doctors eating dinner next to him“just like regular people.”

“I realized that I could be a doctor too someday, and I was drawn to critical care medicine because of its power to take people who are scared and provide them with clarity and peace of mind.”

Today, Schmidt - an Assistant Professor in the DOM’ Division of Pulmonary Sciences and Critical Care Medicine – practices that empathetic ethos with his patients and their families and passes it on to future doctors he trains. Meanwhile, his cutting-edge research on a perplexing condition called Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) is paving the way toward improving outcomes for some of the hardest-to-treat patients.

First described in 1967 by the late CU pulmonologist Tom Petty, the life-threatening syndrome prompts the blood vessels within the lungs to leak, filling the lung air spaces with fluid. It often occurs spontaneously following severe infection, like sepsis, or trauma. But despite decades of research, little is known about why ARDS happens or how to treat it. And the best Intensive Care Unit clinicians can do is put the patient on a ventilator, “watch and wait” and try not to make things worse, says Schmidt.

Of the 190,000 people who suffer ARDS each year, one third die, and many suffer long-term complications.

As a young physician-scientist wrapping up his fellowship in pulmonary medicine at Johns Hopkins in 2008, Schmidt saw this as a challenge. “I thought ‘we can do better for these people.’ I wanted to look at something completely different that no one had ever looked at.”

Schmidt arrived at CU in 2009 and – with the help of a half-million-dollar federal grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – has spent four years exploring the possible mechanisms of action behind ARDS.

His research has centered on the glycocalyx, a thin film of sugar molecules which coats the inside of vessels and protrudes out into the blood flowing through them, “much like seaweed sticks out into the ocean water.” Schmidt hypothesized that somehow infection could cause the protective glycocalyx to erode. But to test his theory, he had to observe it in a living lung. To do this, he helped establish a first-of-its kind Medical Physiology and Imaging Core – a suite of high-powered microscopes and cameras that allowed him to document in real-time what happens to the glycocalyx inside a mouse’s pulmonary vessels after it has developed sepsis.

The results, published in the July issue of Nature Medicine, have been lauded as an important step forward in understanding ARDS, says Michael Matthay, MD, a University of California San Francisco researcher who specializes in lung injury.

“The focus on this lining layer is novel, and potentially uncovers an important step in the injury that has not been appreciated before,” Matthay says.

Schmidt found that sepsis activates an enzyme called endothelial heparanase, which seems to “chew up’ the protective glycocalyx, prompting the blood vessels to leak. He also found, via samples taken from human plasma, that the enzyme is abundant in people with sepsis. And he notes that the prescription drug heparin seems to de-activate the lining-destroying enzyme.

Could giving heparin-like drugs to ICU patients with sepsis prevent the onset of ARDS, or stop it in its tracks before it progresses?

Schmidt says it is way too early to tell and much more research must be done first.

“This is just one piece of the puzzle,” he says.  “But if we can protect the lung a little bit, maybe we can minimize the short-term mortality of sepsis and the long term problems that come with lung injury.”

For now, he says he is just thrilled to be in a place that not only allows him to be both a passionate physician and a dedicated scientist, but expects it.

“I find satisfaction in doing a lot of things – being a teacher, a leader, a clinician, and a researcher, and I can do that here. That’s exciting.”