Griffin Rodgers, MD, of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) is awarded the 2019 ASH Award for Leadership in Promoting Diversity.
Dr. Rodgers earned the prestigious recognition for his ongoing work on behalf of under-represented communities in the sciences. He currently serves as Director of NIDDK at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where he is focused on ensuring efficient and effective project funding, and still makes time for lab work, managing the intramural Molecular and Clinical Hematology Branch at NIDDK. It is certainly worth noting that in addition to his pioneering work in diversity, Dr. Rodgers is among those who contributed to the development of hydroxyurea — the first medicine approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat sickle cell disease (SCD). “Now we’re building on that research,” he says, “examining other strategies, alone or in combination with hydroxyurea, that inhibit the polymerization of deoxy hemoglobin S, which is central to the pathogenesis of SCD.”
Over the years, Dr. Rodgers has guided diversity and inclusion efforts through a variety of channels such as the National Medical Association Travel Award, the Harold Amos Medical Faculty Development Program (AMFDP), and ASH’s Minority Recruitment Initiative. He has been closely involved with the ASH-AMFDP Award from its infancy and continues to push for the recruitment and advancement of under-represented scholars in hematology. With a keen understanding of the ripple effect that representation can have throughout society, Dr. Rodgers possesses a philosophy that provides a strong backbone for his advocacy. Take for example his work with colleagues at NIDDK to achieve broader representation of diverse groups in the institute’s clinical studies; this in turn yields study results that are more inclusive of the populations who are at greatest risk. “By including more diverse groups,” he said, “we can move away from a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach and closer to a precision medicine approach to health care.”
This philosophy also extends to recruitment and retention in the biomedical research arena, fueling the field with the unique perspectives that lead to new approaches in the prevention and treatment of blood diseases and disorders. “Our goal is to help give all people, regardless of income, where they live, or racial/ethnic background, the opportunity to live long and healthy lives,” he said.
A push toward hematology took root during Dr. Rodgers’ younger years, as he witnessed three close friends succumb to their battles with SCD. “When you’re a teenager, you’re not supposed to bury your friends. Their pain and their deaths at such a young age are what influenced me to learn more about SCD and pursue a career in medical investigation,” he said. Dr. Rodgers would go on to enroll in Brown University’s medical program right out of high school and later pursue hematologic research.
Dr. Rodgers’ career path as well as his approach to practice were also spurred by his “earliest and greatest role model and mentor” — his mother, who also worked in the medical
field as a public health nurse. He recalled that many of the patients she cared for were often unable to make it to the community clinics where she worked. So, she would visit them in their homes on weekends, and take the future Dr. Rodgers with her. From his mother, Dr. Rodgers learned a great deal about the “potential and practice of medicine.” It was also during this time that he witnessed the disproportionately heavy impact of many diseases on African American patients, due to the interaction of genetics and the environment. Those years offered an early dose of reality, but also a formative seed that would continue to guide Dr. Rodgers in his work. “My mother taught me my first lessons in the human, compassionate side of practicing medicine,” he stated, “and the human toll of chronic health problems and health disparities. One of the greatest lessons I learned from her was to ‘serve the underserved.’”
Now as a role model himself, Dr. Rodgers is looking forward to the next big challenge. He has worked on a team that established a modified blood stem-cell transplant regimen that has been shown to be highly effective in reversing SCD, with relatively low toxicity, in more than 60 adults at the NIH Clinical Center and replicated in other U.S. and Canadian sites. Next, he and his colleagues are challenged with the development of effective treatments for those patients without suitable stem cell donors. “With gene editing technologies, we are in the position to correct the defect for SCD,” he said. “Our hope is to correct that defect within the patient’s own hematopoietic stem cells, which would cure his or her disease.”
Dr. Rodgers closed with some pearls of wisdom for the young medical professional who might be considering a future in hematology, harkening back to the personal journey that drove his own career choices. “Staying true to yourself is the only way to be your best in medicine, science, or any other part of your life,” he said. “And never lose touch with what first inspired, stimulated, and excited you about medicine … because it will take you places you may not think you can go.
“The friends I mentioned, who passed away from sickle cell, inspired me to enter a career as a physician-scientist to try to make life better for people with sickle cell, and they continue to inspire my work today.”