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Happy 80th Birthday to Dr. David Weatherall: March 9th, 2013

Dr. Elliott Vichinsky and Hematology/Oncology staff at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital Oakland celebrate the birthday of internationally renowed authority on inherited blood disorders, Dr. David Weatherall.

David Weatherall

Each year 300,000 to 500,000 babies are born with severe forms of hemoglobin disorders worldwide. It is estimated that 7% of the world’s population are carriers of the genes that may cause these diseases. While originally most common in warm climates, extensive population migration has resulted in hemoglobinopathies becoming a worldwide public health problem, including the United States and particularly California.

The exponential increase in hemoglobin disorders (“hemoglobinopathies” including sickle cell disease and thalassemia) led the World Health Organization (WHO) to address this problem globally with efforts to promote and support research, increase awareness, and provide support for prevention and management of these disorders. Dr. Weatherall has been leading efforts with the World Health Organization and has initiated an international program of developed and developing countries to share resources in addressing the medical, ethical, social and economic issues of this public health crisis. These partnerships have developed specialized programs in areas largely ignored by the international health community and governments. Dr. Weatherall is leading an effort to expand commitments from countries like the United States in areas of greatest need. For instance, in many regions of smaller countries, the cost of transfusion alone for these patients account for greater than 7% of total health expenditures. For over 15 years, Children's Hospital Oakland has participated with Dr. Weatherall's worldwide efforts.

A medical pioneer, Sir David Weatherall transformed the clinical treatment and genetic understanding of thalassemia throughout the last 50 years. He first encountered the inherited blood disorder during his British military service in Singapore – thalassemia is most common in people of Asian, the Mediterranean, and the Middle Eastern descent – and went on to complete a fellowship at Johns Hopkins University. In 1987, Dr. Weatherall was knighted for his scientific accomplishments and in 1989, he founded the Institute of Molecular Medicine at Oxford, later renamed the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine. At Oxford, he held the most distinguished chair, the Regius Professor of Medicine. In 2002, he published a monumental report “Genomics and World Health” for the World Health Organization, followed by a close partnership with the National Institutes of Health to form a world health initiative for hemoglobinopathies. In the last two years, he received two of the most prestigious awards in the United States: the Lasker-Koshland Special Achievement Award in Medical Sciences, and the 2011 Karl Landsteiner Memorial Award.

Dr. Weatherall has made a unique contribution to the world in understanding hematology, genetics, hemoglobinopathies, medicine, and bioethics. He stands alone in his accomplishments in basic research, clinical research, patient care, teaching, and world public health service. As a person and scientist, he has influenced more people worldwide than any other clinician and scientist I know. While other scientists have made important contributions to the field of hemoglobinopathy, no one can compare to David in his influence on the world’s public health policy.

When E/ß thalassemia and Hemoglobin H became a growing problem in North America, I turned to Dr. Weatherall for advice. He took the time out of his busy schedule to understand the complexity of the problem affecting California from a scientific, clinical, and socioeconomic standpoint. It was his advice that led to the establishment of much of the research at our center. His guidance helped establish universal screening for Hemoglobin H disease in our state. This has had a profound effect on the lives of the thousands of patients diagnosed since newborn screening was initiated. It also served as the springboard for a national screening policy that is now under discussion.

His seminal work in the clinical and genetic aspects of E/ß thalassemia has affected scientists, clinicians, and patients worldwide. Our treatment of these patients has undergone intense study in order to determine the best approaches. His observation of the genetic modifiers of the disease and its diversity of clinical expression clearly has prevented hundreds of patients from unnecessary transfusions.
  There are so many scientific accomplishments Dr. Weatherall has achieved. As a mentor, he has influenced emerging scientists and clinicians throughout the world. I believe these armies of investigators, influenced by Dr. Weatherall, are much better people and scientists.

I must admit I hold Dr. Weatherall in awe. I attended a busy thalassemia clinic with him. He listened to each patient carefully and developed a rapport with their family. I watched as he performed a respectful and detailed physical exam. He then discussed with the family his recommendations and with me his insight. I remember each one of these exams vividly and his insightful comments. I also remember the scientific questions he was able to raise from these exams. He is truly a unique scientist and clinician. His influence in the world cannot be underestimated. My colleagues and I will pass on to the next generation the scientific and clinical tools he taught us.

Dr. Weatherall was honored with the Lasker Special Achievement in Medical Science Award in 2010. Watch the video here.

Elliott Vichinsky, MD
Medical Director, Hematology/Oncology
UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland
Adjunct Professor, University of California, San Francisco

Northern California Comprehensive Thalassemia Center
UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital Oakland
747 52nd Street, Oakland CA 94609   •   Phone: (510) 428-3347   •   Fax: (510) 450-5647
© 2003-2012 Children's Hospital & Research Center Oakland
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