Texas Heart Institute’s Overachieving President and Medical Director Dr. James T Willerson Profiles THI’s 50 Years Of Accomplishments

The Texas Heart Institute is a not-for-profit cardiology and heart surgery center located at the Texas Medical Center in Houston. Founded in 1962 by Dr. Denton A. Cooley, the mission of the Texas Heart Institute has been to reduce the devastating toll of cardiovascular disease through innovative programs in research, education and improved patient care. Over the past 51 years the Institute has been involved in training cardiologists, heart surgeons, imaging specialists in cardiovascular medicine and cardiac electrophysiology, and pathologists, and educated hundreds of cardiovascular specialists.

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A nonprofit organization in the truest sense, and unlike most institutions that have a source of operating revenue, the Texas Heart Institute relies solely on government grants, research contracts and, above all, philanthropy, with donations from grateful patients, foundations, corporations, physicians, and the general public account for more than half of the Institute’s annual operating budget. The Institute’s location in and affiliations with St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital and Texas Children’s Hospital have assured that all age groups will be treated, and has freed the Institute of the burden of financing a health care facility.

The Texas Heart Institute (THI) and its clinical partner, St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital, have become one of America’s largest cardiovascular centers, whose 160-member professional staff have reportedly performed more than 100,000 open heart operations, 200,000 cardiac catheterizations, and 1,000 heart transplants.

In its 2010 annual survey of “America’s Best Hospitals,” U.S. News & World Report ranked the Texas Heart Institute at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital number four in the United States for heart care, marking this its 20th consecutive year of inclusion as one of the top 10 heart centers in the country.

willersonIn an interview with the European science news journal Research Media, THI President and Medical Director, Dr. James T Willerson, says that when he originally came to the Institute in 2004, then still President Dr Cooley wanted him to be Medical Director of Cardiovascular Research, and upon Dr. Cooley’s resignation in 2008, he asked Dr. Willerston to succeed him in that position.

In the interview, Dr. Willerston, a native Texan, profiles the THI’s achievements and shares his thoughts on reducing the heavy burdens of Cardiovascular disease, which is estimated to cost the economy $449 billion annually.

Accounting for over a quarter of all deaths in the U.S. each year, cardiovascular disease is obviously a major health concern, but mortality from coronary heart disease (CHD) has substantially decreased in recent decades. Dr. Willerston attributes the decrease to research discoveries that have provided insights into mechanisms responsible for thrombosis in injured coronary and cerebral arteries, and led to improved treatment.

He cites as an example that increased understanding of ‘bad’ low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol in patients to values well below 100 mg/dl has been a very important contribution, as has the development of statins to lower LDL has also been crucial, the use of low-dose aspirin and other medications to control blood pressure, avoidance of smoking and use of recreational drugs, control of blood sugar in patients who are diabetic, emphasis on diet and exercise, and improved imaging techniques for blood vessels and the cardiovascular system, as factors that have played a role in protecting CHD patients and decreasing mortality risk.

However, he notes that the greatest GHD risk factor is a genetic one, and a remaining priority must be to identify genes that contribute to this risk; ultimately silencing the most dangerous ones using microRNA methodology. Dr. Willerston says numerous clinical studies in patients with cardiovascular disease using a variety of stem cell types, including mesenchymal stem cells taken from the bone marrow or adipose tissue have been conducted, and that through the pioneering work of Dr Doris Taylor, scientists are now able to deplete human hearts of their cellular structure and then restore that same heart to normal function by the infusion of stem cells. With continued success, these efforts could fill a great unmet need and pave the way to a new area of transplant medicine.

Dr. Willerston maintains that prevention would be the single most effective means of reducing healthcare costs, and should be the main concern initiated at very young ages and continue throughout adulthood.

Dr. James T. Willerson, born in Lampasas, Texas, is President of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston where he is the Alkek-Williams Distinguished Professor and holds the Edward Randall III Chair in Internal Medicine. In October 2004, Dr. Willerson was named President-Elect of the Texas Heart Institute in Houston, Texas. He holds the Dunn Chair in Cardiology Research and the John O’Quinn Chair named the “James T. Willerson Distinguished Chair in Cardiovascular Research,” both at the Texas Heart Institute, Houston, Texas. From 1989 through 2000, he was the Chairman of the Department of Internal Medicine at The University of Texas Medical School at Houston where an Annual Lectureship has been established in his name. During this same period, he served as the Chief of Medical Services at Memorial Hermann Hospital. He is also the Medical Director, Director of Cardiovascular Research, and Co-Director of the Cullen Cardiovascular Research Laboratories at the Texas Heart Institute. He is an Adjunct Professor of Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and at The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Dr. Willerson also founded TexGen Research, a collaboration which brings together all of the institutions in the Texas Medical Center to collect blood samples necessary for the discovery of those genes and proteins that play a key role in causing major diseases. With TexGen, each Texas Medical Center institution obtains blood samples from patients who have a personal or family history of cardiovascular disease, stroke, dementia, or selected cancers and who are admitted to their hospitals. Great progress is being made by this collaborative biomedical research effort.

A graduate of the Texas Military Institute in San Antonio, Texas, where he was the Battalion Commander, President of the Senior Class, Editor of the school newspaper, and a state swimming champion, Dr. Willerston attended The University of Texas at Austin, graduating as a Phi Beta Kappa, member of the Texas Cowboys, and where he lettered for three years in varsity swimming. Upon graduating as a member of Alpha Omega Alpha from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, he completed his medical and cardiology training as an intern, resident, and research and clinical fellow at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, and as a Clinical Associate at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

He is the former Chairman of the National American Heart Association Research Committee and of the Cardiovascular and Renal Study Section of the National Institutes of Health. He has received the Award of Merit from the American Heart Association and has served as a member of the Board of Directors and Steering Committee of the National American Heart Association. Before coming to The University of Texas Medical School at Houston, Dr. Willerson was Professor of Medicine and Director of the Cardiology Division at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas, Texas, and Director and Principal Investigator of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s Specialized Center of Research under a major grant from the NIH. Upon his departure, the “James T. Willerson, M.D. Distinguished Chair in Cardiovascular Diseases” was established at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical School.

Dr. Willerson has served as visiting professor and invited lecturer at more than 220 institutions worldwide, and has received numerous national and international awards, as well as having served on editorial boards for many professional publications including: The New England Journal of Medicine, Journal of Clinical Investigation, Circulation, Circulation Research, Arteriosclerosis and Thrombosis, American Journal of Medicine, Journal of the American College of Cardiology, American Journal of Cardiology, American Heart Journal, and Cardiovascular Medicine. From 1993 to 2004, he was the longest-serving Editor of Circulation, the major publication of the American Heart Association. In 1998, the monthly journal was converted to a weekly publication and attained the highest Impact Factor of any cardiology journal in the world. He has edited or co-edited twenty-four textbooks, including the Third Edition of Cardiovascular Medicine which was released in February of 2007. Additionally, he has published more than 850 scientific articles.

Dr. Willerson has been elected to membership in numerous professional societies, including the American Society of Clinical Investigation, the Association of American Physicians, the Association of Professors of Medicine, and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. He was named a Distinguished Alumnus by the Baylor College of Medicine in 1998 and a Distinguished Alumnus of The University of Texas at Austin in 1999.


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