When Dr. Mark Geraci began to scour the country for a fellowship
in pulmonary medicine in 1990, the University of Colorado quickly rose to the
top of the young physician’s wish list.
“It had the best regarded pulmonary program in the world,”
recalls Geraci, who had spent his youth working in his dad’s grocery store in
Ohio, and dreamed of life as a scientist. “I felt very fortunate to be able to
come here, and I’ve been here ever since.”
Twenty-three years later, the Division of Pulmonary Sciences
and Critical Care Medicine remains the largest and top ranked in the nation,
according to U.S. News and World Reports, with 138 faculty members, 20 fellows, and
thriving clinical and research programs covering nearly every lung disease. As
a prolific researcher with more than 100 published studies of his own, Geraci –
the division head for the past nine years – says he is now “paying it forward,”
cultivating a new crop of physician scientists who blend the best of patient care
with cutting-edge translational research.
“Our overarching goal is to continue to make Colorado the
place where the next generation is being trained,” he says. “That keeps us
innovating and moving forward. It forms the foundation for everything we do.”
After studying molecular biology at University of
Colorado-Boulder as an undergraduate, Geraci went to John’s Hopkins University
School of Medicine, then on to Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General
Hospital for his residency. He completed his fellowship in the Division of
Pulmonary Sciences in 1994 and stayed on as a professor in the Department of
Medicine. Since then, he has played a leading role in helping usher the Anschutz
Medical Campus into the new era of genomic medicine.
“Mark has done an
outstanding job recruiting and retaining faculty and trainees. He’s also
created bridges to other divisions, departments, and schools throughout the
campus,” says Dr. David Schwartz, chair of the Department of Medicine. “He has
been able to seamlessly blend the skills of a physician with the curiosity of a
As founding director of the Genomics and Microarray Core
Facility in 1999, Geraci helped put CU on the map as the first academic
institution in the West to have its own DNA sequencing technology facility. And
in the 1990s, his team was the first on campus to use transgenic mice models.
He spent much of his early research career hunkered down in
the lab, cloning and sequencing a gene responsible for producing the enzyme
prostacyclin synthase. “Now you can just order them from a catalog,” he notes.”But
back in the old days it took about a year.”
Today, those efforts are paying off. Through a series of
elegant lab and animal experiments over the years, Geraci’s team showed that
the over-expression of that enzyme can have a dramatic, protective effect
against lung damage and developing tumors in the lung. Now human studies are
underway to see if existing drugs which mimic that enzyme could prevent lung
cancer in those at high risk.
One Phase II Clinical Trial found that former smokers who
took the oral pulmonary hypertension drug
Iloprost saw tissue in their airways normalize. And the University of Colorado
Hospital and Department of Veterans Affairs just launched another clinical
trial looking at the diabetes drug Pioglitazone, for prevention of lung cancer
in high risk individuals.
“The National Cancer Institute is very interested in
pursuing more studies taking people who are at very high risk of cancer, maybe
lung cancer survivors, and placing them on
these compounds to see if it improves their long-term survival,” he says.
In many ways that has been a dream come true. “To take our research from the bench to animal models to
humans has been really fulfilling,” says Geraci.
But most fulfilling, he says, is the idea of what is to come.
“My days as an investigator will eventually come to an end, but
there will be people that I train that have an even greater impact.”