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Mark Geraci, M.D.

Head of the Division of Pulmonary Sciences and Critical Care Medicine


 

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 scientist.”

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.”