Is nurturing hope that, for Ugandans, a cancer diagnosis does not have to be an automatic death sentence.
Top Doctors 2012: Global Health Awards
In tandem with Global Health month, we honor nine global health innovators.
| July 2012
It’s a Herculean task: deliver treatments, cures and comfort—and the simple things we take for granted, such as clean drinking water—to the world’s most desperately sick and vulnerable populations. Every year in these pages, we recognize outstanding doctors here at home; now, we honor the remarkable work being done by local doctors and scientists on behalf of sick and suffering people worldwide. ¶ The Gates Foundation’s presence here has secured Seattle’s place as one of the world’s leading centers for global health impact and innovation. Seattle magazine, along with our Global Health Advisory Board, is pleased to recognize these nine outstanding leaders in the field.
[ High-impact Solutions ]
Christopher Elias, M.D., M.P.H.
President of Global Development, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
Dr. Christopher Elias’ first exposure to the field of global health came when he was a medical student working in a refugee camp in Thailand; he’s been passionate about the field ever since. As president of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Development Program, he seeks out the highest-impact solutions for bettering the lives of hundreds of millions of people, overseeing vaccine delivery, family health, agricultural development, financial services for the poor, water, sanitation and hygiene, and more. Elias formerly was president and CEO of PATH, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the health of people across the globe. His work there established PATH as one of the world’s most effective global health NGOs. “Chris has the capacity to inspire and to drill down to the heart of the matter,” says Lisa Cohen, executive director of the Washington Global Health Alliance. “He helps us understand, in the most eloquent and compelling way possible, why we all need to care whether a mother, child or family in Africa or India deserves access to decent food and healthy lives. He has a charisma and intellect that is deeply authentic.” —KAREN WEST
[ Cervical Cancer Vaccine ]
Jacqueline Sherris, Ph.D.
Vice president, global programs, PATH
As Jacqueline Sherris recalls, the news was grim for the global health leaders sitting around a Seattle conference table in the early 1990s. With virtually no access to screenings or medical care, women in the developing world were dying of cervical cancer at a rate much higher than were women in other countries. “It’s really bad,” the leaders concluded, “but there’s nothing you can do.”
Sherris, 60, is proud of the fact that she and PATH didn’t settle for that bleak assessment. Back then, Sherris was a program officer for PATH. From 2002 to 2007, she worked to expand PATH’s cervical cancer prevention work through a Gates Foundation-funded project that aimed to eventually introduce a human papillomavirus vaccine in developing countries. Now vice president for global programs, Sherris looks back with satisfaction. “There is still a lot of work to be done, but we have been able to demonstrate that you can make a difference,” she says. With the availability of a vaccine to prevent the virus that causes cervical cancer, “we have all the tools we need now. We just need to get them out there.”
A former middle and high school teacher, Sherris earned her Ph.D. in science education from Purdue University. She got an early introduction to global health while serving as a staff associate for the Population Information Program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. She joined PATH in 1987. Sherris says it helps to be an optimist when confronting the enormous health needs of the world’s poorest countries. “There are always new challenges,” she says. “That’s part of what makes this work so rewarding.” —ELAINE BOWERS
[ Battling Blindness ]
President & CEO, SightLife
Monty Montoya chokes back tears whenever he talks about them. “In too many situations, I have had to leave people with corneal blindness, knowing they had no hope,” he recalls. “There are kids I held who I know are not alive today.”
In the developing world, a blind child younger than 5 has a life expectancy of less than two years. That is why Montoya has made it his life’s work to make corneas available to as many of the world’s 10 million sufferers as possible from the helm of South Lake Union-based SightLife, the global leader in eliminating corneal blindness.
Montoya joined the former Northwest Lions Eye Bank 15 years ago at the age of 27, after working a stint as an eye-bank technician in college. He joined SightLife in 1997, and a year later, the organization began sending its surplus of corneas to developing countries. Transplants in poor countries increased, but Montoya knew they weren’t making a dent in the problem. Finding a solution involved hiring Tim Schottman, a former Starbucks executive, who helped SightLife analyze different countries’ abilities to develop cornea supplies and resources. India has become a focus; Montoya says SightLife is on track to perform 100,000 transplants there by 2020. SightLife now works in more than 30 countries; Montoya hopes that 10 million transplants worldwide is within reach. “I feel like one of the most fortunate people in the world,” he says, “working on a mission I love with people I love.” —E.B.
[ Power Couple ]
Julie McElrath & Ken Stuart
Senior vice president and director, Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center // Founder, Seattle Biomedical Research Institute
Couples often share a common passion, maybe a sport, a hobby or mutual friends. For Dr. Julie McElrath and her husband, Ken Stuart, it’s a mission to fight infectious disease that’s often fodder for dinner-table conversation, especially when McElrath has some good news to share from her job as director of the McElrath Lab at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, where she leads efforts to develop an HIV vaccine. Presumably, Stuart has good and bad days to talk about when he gets home from his job as founder of Seattle Biomedical Research Institute.
Call them a “global health power couple.” Married 23 years, both are at the pinnacle of Seattle’s biotechnology revolution, and both are fighting health scourges of the developing world: HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis in McElrath’s case, and parasitic diseases in Stuart’s. ¶ McElrath was inspired to work on HIV/AIDS as a new doctor in the early 1980s, watching young people die of a mysterious illness, later identified as AIDS. She’s seen many a false dawn in the search for a vaccine, but won’t give up. “When you have firsthand evidence of the devastation AIDS can cause, it just sustains your hope and desire to make a cure happen,” she says, adding that optimism is on the rise that a vaccine is possible.
In Stuart’s case, the search for a cure to diseases almost unknown in the U.S., such as Chagas disease (a tropical parasitic disease common in rural Latin America), malaria and African sleeping sickness, has consumed him since he founded Seattle BioMed in 1976. He could’ve taken on the usual suspects in infectious disease—bacteria and viruses—but “I’m peculiarly interested in things that are more complex,” he says, which led him to match wits against the single-celled creatures that cause these illnesses. Conquering these diseases, Stuart says, does more than improve health. “Infectious diseases create a cycle of poverty affecting how people live and how economies work,” he says, adding that Seattle is fantastic place for him and his wife to pursue this work. “Everyone here is working together to improve public health.” —JOE FOLLANSBEE
[ Portable Micro-labs ]
Paul Yager, Ph.D.
Bioengineer, University of Washington
For years, women have tested themselves at home for pregnancy using a simple device bought at a neighborhood store. Paul Yager, a professor and the endowed chair of the University of Washington’s bioengineering department, wondered if that simplicity could be applied to tests for the presence of infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis, that still plague the developing world. That led Yager and his team to develop a plastic card—essentially, a miniature laboratory—that contains the chemicals needed to produce a test result; all the patient supplies is a drop of blood.
Yager’s fascination with medical diagnostics was sparked when he was 12 years old, watching Star Trek on television. “My head was either in Scientific American or in the science fiction section of the library,” he says. He and his colleagues invented the field of microfluidics—the science of systems that manipulate fluids on a microscopic scale—to solve the problem of making medical diagnostics smaller, faster and less expensive. Redmond-based Micronics is working to bring the plastic card to market, and Yager is focused on the next challenge: putting these tests on paper—literally—similar to that used for home pregnancy tests. For Yager, it’s not just the gee-whiz challenge; his ideas have real implications for health care in poor countries. “We can save time, money and suffering if we can do testing at home instead of bringing people into the hospital,” Yager says. Infectious diseases still kill more than 10 million people in the developing world, and if Yager and his fellow researchers are correct, more people will know sooner if they are sick, which means many more lives can be saved. —J.F.
[ Inspire and Educate ]
Director, BioQuest, Seattle BioMed
Theresa Britschgi loves working with young people. In graduate school at Oregon State University, she told her adviser that she wanted to teach. Fate had other plans for the former Orcas Island resident, however—instead of a teaching career, she found early research success in microbiology after an internship at Harborview Medical Center, where she worked to improve the health of infants affected by sexually transmitted diseases.
But the idea of teaching still tugged at her.
After joining the South Lake Union nonprofit Seattle Biomedical Research Institute—a biotech firm focused on reducing infectious disease—in 2004, she got the chance to combine research with her teaching interests when she became director of BioQuest, Seattle BioMed’s program to attract teenagers to biotechnology, biomedical and health careers. “We want to see that local talent can make it into this field,” she says. To that end, Britschgi visits high schools in the Seattle area, and hosts school field trips to Seattle BioMed, recruiting youth for summer learning through BioQuest Academy. “Students get to see scientists at work,” she says. “These young people are empathetic and want to make a difference."
Britschgi’s efforts are paying off. Next year, 89 of the academy’s 240 graduates will go on to attend the University of Washington. Others have gone on to Harvard and Stanford—and 44 have returned to internships and jobs at Seattle BioMed. —J.F.
[ HIV/AIDS Treatments ]
Judd Walson, M.D., M.P.H.
Assistant professor in the departments of Global Health, Medicine (infectious diseases) and Pediatrics, University of Washington
Like most high achievers, Dr. Judd Walson is used to juggling lots of things at once, including research, teaching and the demands of three kids. He mastered multitasking soon after dropping out of college in the early 1990s to become a street performer in Europe. His travels eventually took him to Nepal, where he saw the devastating effects of tuberculosis, inspiring him to return to the United States and medical school.
Now a researcher in the global health department at the University of Washington, Walson is co-director of the UW’s Strategic Analysis Research and Training Program, which provides support to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He’s also tackling the problems associated with HIV/AIDS in Africa, but from a unique angle: Many people in Africa suffer from intestinal worms, and Walson hopes to discover whether common deworming treatments can delay HIV’s progression. “What really interests me,” he says, “is trying to find solutions that work in the poorest communities of the world.”
For Walson, solutions are more than just medicines. Success also requires acceptance by local communities. He works in northern Ethiopia with Seattle’s University Presbyterian Church and other Seattle community partners to create trust between doctors using the latest HIV/AIDS treatments and local residents who rely on religious traditions. “There are contextual barriers to delivering health care from place to place,” he says. “We try to find local solutions to local problems.” —J.F.
[ Infection-related Cancers ]
Corey Casper, M.D., M.P.H.
Associate professor of medicine, epidemiology and global health, University of Washington; Uganda Cancer Initiative, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
Dr. Corey Casper dreams of eradicating up to one-quarter of all cancers in his lifetime. That dream first led the 41-year-old infectious disease specialist to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center and, eventually, to his life’s work in Uganda, where, historically, almost every diagnosis of cancer has meant a death sentence. More people in the developing world die of cancer than HIV, tuberculosis and malaria combined. Casper’s goal is to prevent the more than 20 percent of cancers that are caused by infections.
In 2004, he arrived in Uganda, which has one of the world’s highest concentrations of infection-related cancers. At that time, there was only one oncologist in the entire country—a country with the same population as Canada.
Through collaboration with the Uganda Cancer Institute, Casper and his colleagues at Fred Hutchinson have expanded clinical cancer care in Uganda through innovative techniques. For example, intravenous cancer treatment is virtually unavailable there, so Casper promotes oral treatments. The number of oncologists has increased to 12 through a Fred Hutchinson training program, and a new treatment and research facility is under construction.
Casper has been grateful that his work offers him an opportunity to spend time at a patient’s bedside in Seattle and to work on public health policy in the developing world. “People tend to think that it’s hard to make a difference—but it’s also so easy to make a difference,” he says. “The challenges are great, but if you bite off a little at a time, the rewards can be pretty great, too.” —E.B.