Meet Dr. John Newman: A Pioneer in the PH Field

Dr. John NewmanDr. John Newman is the Elsa S. Hanigan Professor of Pulmonary Medicine at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. He has been working in the field of pulmonary hypertension (PH) for more than 30 years and continues to make strides in PH research. Dr. Newman has a longstanding interest in the physiology and genetics of pulmonary hypertension, and he is an active member of PHA. Dr. Newman assumed the position of Chair of PHA’s Scientific Leadership Council at PHA’s 9th International PH Conference and Scientific Sessions, and he recently took the time to talk about his involvement in the fight against PH.

You have worked in various settings throughout your medical career. How did you become interested in pulmonary hypertension?

I became interested in PH when I was a medical resident in 1972 and had a patient with PPH, as it was called then. The disease was so rare and poorly understood that everyone spoke about it in hushed tones, especially because there was no treatment. She was a typical patient, young, otherwise healthy, with no other disease features. When I went to Denver, Colorado, for my Pulmonary Fellowship, I became interested in high altitude pulmonary hypertension and started working on the pulmonary circulation in the laboratory. I also have worked on other problems in the pulmonary circulation such as oxygen toxicity and exercise.

What advances in PH treatment have you seen since you first started practicing?

When I started there was no effective treatment at all. Then calcium channel blockers were discovered, and Ivan McMurtry showed they reversed hypoxic pulmonary vasoconstriction. They were then tried in PPH and shown to work in some patients. This was in 1980. Since then, all the important discoveries have been made, so I predated effective disease treatment and have witnessed all the advances we now have.

What is the most important advice you give PH patients?

I try not to give advice. I do want people to live as normally as is possible. Hope is the most important feature of living with pulmonary hypertension or any life-threatening disease.

How did you become involved with PHA?

I came to the first PHA International PH Conference in 1994 at Stone Mountain Park in Ga. at the request of one of my patients and because my colleague, Jim Loyd, and I wanted to get involved. We were so impressed with the families and the organization. Also, we had been in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Registry and all the doctors in the Registry were very excited about the organization. That was the first time we drew blood with Greg Elliott for genetic studies — the beginning of what would become the Research Room at PHA’s Conferences.

You have just stepped into the role of Chair of PHA’s Scientific Leadership Council (SLC). What are your plans and goals in this position?

As Chair of the SLC, my goal is to continue to provide service for PAH patients and families, help promote research, give expertise for advocacy. I would like to expand the research portfolio, to work with NIH on translational PH programs and work more with the pediatric pulmonary hypertension community.

You are a professor of Pulmonary Medicine at Vanderbilt University. What advice do you have for new practitioners entering the field of PH?

Work hard, take your work, but not yourself, seriously.

Thank you for speaking with us. Any parting thoughts?

So much good has been done by the PHA and by the health workers interested in the problem. I really think we will see a breakthrough in treatment in the next several years that will convert PAH to a chronic disease that allows patients to lead a normal life. That is my hope and expectation. 

Interview conducted by Priscilla Davis
Former PHA Medical Services Program Associate

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The National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD) awarded PHA the Abbey S. Meyers Leadership Award in 2012 for outstanding service to PHA members in advocacy, education and other key areas.