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2009 George Rieveschl Jr. Award for Distinguished Scientific Research: Jeffrey Robbins

Heart patients around the world have benefited from Jeffrey Robbins' innovative work in the area of how the heart keeps a protein balance.

Date: 5/21/2009 12:00:00 AM
By: Katie Pence
Phone: (513) 558-4561
Photos By: Dottie Stover

UC ingot   Jeffrey Robbins lives life in the fast lane—and that’s not just because he enjoys fast cars, like the Ferrari he drives into work on the weekends.
Jeffrey Robbins
Jeffrey Robbins

“I’m much more comfortable being uncomfortable,” says Robbins. “In this field, you have to be brave enough to try new things.

“The worst mistake I see in scientists is not being brave enough to change.”

Robbins’ love for living on the edge—at least scientifically speaking—is what led to his worldwide recognition for the development of tools currently used to affect the protein balance in the heart.

It’s also what has earned him the 2009 George Rieveschl Jr. Award for Distinguished Scientific Research.

Robbins says he is honored to be placed into the same category as George Rieveschl Jr., the pioneering UC researcher perhaps best known for inventing Benadryl, but it isn’t the recognition that inspires him every day.

“You don’t go into this business to win awards,” he says, smiling. “I have the best job in the world. I get paid to play.”

Robbins’ version of “play” means discovering the innovative tools used to help cardiac researchers understand the behavior of both the normal contractile proteins and the mutations that cause cardiovascular disease.

It was 1985 when Robbins came to UC as an associate professor of pharmacology and cell biophysics and began his heart research by looking at the embryos of chickens.

“There was no way to truly work with genetics using chicken embryos,” he says. “In 1990, I started thinking about mammalian systems where we could focus on genetics. Without genetics, we couldn’t ask those cause-and-effect questions.”

Robbins says his scientific tactics revolved around central questions and the tools it took to answer them.

“If the tools were not available, then we just took the time to develop them,” he says simply.

Now, these tools, which cause the heart to synthesize normal and mutant proteins, are used in laboratories all over the world.

“We can turn the processes on and off at will, allowing us to establish cause-and-effect relationships between the mutant proteins and the development of cardiac disease,” Robbins explains.

Currently, Robbins and his team are doing basic research to find the similarities between neurodegenerative diseases—like Alzheimer’s—and heart failure.

“We found both types of diseases contain ‘unfolded’ proteins, or proteins that are not put together properly,” he says. “We want to discover why this occurs, stop them from injuring the cells and put them together properly ourselves, avoiding the defect.”
Jeffrey Robbins

The team is also researching signaling pathways in congenital heart disease and ways to genetically modify them in addition to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, where part of the heart muscle thickens without an obvious cause and can cause death from sudden cardiac failure.

Robbins, who has risen through the ranks at UC and is also associate chair of research at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, says this recent research along with past findings will continue to change the way medicine is practiced in addition to impacting the lives of patients.

“It’s incredibly gratifying to know that what I do every day will improve the lives of people,” he says.

But Robbins, the scientific daredevil in him alive and thriving, says the key to research that truly makes a difference is constant modification and “never being too afraid to try something new.”

“If you stay static in a field such as this, you’re finished,” he says.