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Todd Bull, MD

Director of the Pulmonary Vascular Disease Center & Interim Director of The Center for Lungs and Breathing

His great grandfather was one of the first physicians on Colorado’s Western slope. His grandfather was the beloved town doctor for the then-small community of Grand Junction. And both parents and several aunts and uncles are physicians practicing in and around Colorado.   So when it came time for Todd Bull to choose a profession, the choice was obvious.

“Early on I could see the joy my family members experienced in impacting someone’s life in a positive way,” says Bull, MD, a professor in the DOM’s Division of Pulmonary Sciences and Critical Care Medicine. “Medicine always struck me as one of the highest callings.”

Today, Bull is doing his family tradition proud, heading up the University of Colorado’s ambitious new Pulmonary Vascular Disease Center, which aims to bring together scientists and clinicians from an array of fields to improve outcomes for patients who suffer from pulmonary hypertension (essentially high-blood pressure of the lungs), and other diseases of the pulmonary vascular bed.

Bull graduated from the CU School of Medicine in 1994, and did his residency at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. It was in the Intensive Care Unit there that he developed a keen interest in the delicate relationship between heart and lungs.

He vividly recalls the day a gravely ill 35-year-old woman was brought into the ICU with pulmonary arterial hypertension, a rare, often-deadly disease in which pressure builds inside the artery between the heart and lungs, often leading to heart failure.  “We initiated a therapy and she had a dramatic improvement before my eyes,” he recalls. “The fact that you could have such an impact by understanding the physiology of the disease and applying the correct medication really had an impact on me. It was a sentinel moment in my career.”

He returned to CU for his pulmonary medicine/critical care fellowship and spent time with the Division of Cardiology, learning heart catheterization and echo interpretation.

“He has come through our program and been incredibly successful in the clinical, research and administrative domains,” says Mark Geraci, M.D., former head of the Division of Pulmonary Sciences and Critical Care Medicine. “He is one of the new leaders in the field.”

Bull notes that while much progress has been made – in part due to research conducted at CU – in the treatment of pulmonary arterial hypertension, less is known about how to treat other more common forms of PH, such as those that arise from high altitude exposure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and thromboembolic disease (blood clots).

“We really have no medical treatments for those patients,” he says.

In 2010, Bull and his colleagues published a study showing that the vast majority of people who land in the ICU with Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (a lethal lung disorder that often arises from sepsis or trauma) also have PH, and those who do are more likely to die. Now he is studying whether drugs approved for pulmonary arterial hypertension can improve their chances of survival: 

“This area of investigation nicely dovetails my interest in heart-lung interactions and critical care medicine.”

He’s also exploring the use of gene microarray analysis to identify people at risk of developing PH.  And he’s working with researchers in Summit County, Colo. (Elev. 8,388) to study whether prolonged exposure to high altitude may lead to subtle problems with the pulmonary vasculature.

As director of the new center, he hopes to add several new clinics to centralize the care of patients with various pulmonary vascular disorders, and offer workshops for physicians and patients wanting to learn about them. He hopes the center will bridge the gap between basic science, translational medicine, and clinical care, with the end result of saving and improving lives. 

“Everyone in academic medicine would like to look back on their career and be able to say they figured out a way to change how we practice to improve patient outcomes. That is the holy grail,” he says. “This center provides us with a fantastic opportunity for us to do that.”

When not in the hospital, Bull enjoys spending time with his 3 daughters and his wife Sarah, who is an endocrinologist practicing at Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Hospital in Denver.