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With seven older siblings, four of whom are physicians, it
was not surprising that Emma Anne Meagher chose to
be a physician, graduating from RCSI in 1987. "Lots of
factors affect your decision-making process at that age
but certainly one of them was the diversity of the student
body at RCSI, with so many young people from far-flung
countries attending the College. That held a lot of appeal to
a teenager in 1980s Dublin."
Dr Meagher completed her intern year at the Richmond
Hospital and got married in 1988 to another RCSI graduate,
Noel Williams, who is Professor of Surgery at the University
of Pennsylvania. The couple went to the US for a year where
Dr Meagher worked in a medical consultancy role with
American Express. Dr Meagher recalls: "At the time, there
were greater contrasts between the ways of life in the US
and Ireland than there are today. The US was unfamiliar,
exciting and a fascinating place to work."
Nonetheless, the pull of home was strong and in 1989, Dr
Meagher and her husband returned to Ireland. During
the following years, she worked in Beaumont Hospital,
St Vincent's and the Mater, before ultimately making a
permanent move to the US in 1994.
"I can still remember my initial interview for a faculty
position at Penn. I had just come over from Ireland, had
started a family and was looking at taking on a demanding
new role. It was a big leap out of my comfort zone. But
if I'm told something can't be done, that's generally all
the motivation I need to try to do it! " Today, Dr Meagher
can look back on almost two decades of remarkable
achievement as an educator and researcher in the US.
Her research work encompasses mechanisms of vascular
dysfunction in cardiovascular disease, alcohol-induced liver
disease and the role of antioxidant vitamin therapy in both
primary and secondary prevention of disease. A particular
focus of Dr Meagher's work has been in research and
development of the drug lomitapide. "I first started working
on lomitapide 14 years ago. The initial breakthrough came
with the realisation that, while lomitapide had serious side
effects for most patients, these were more acceptable in the
case of a specific cohort of patients with a deadly condition
called homozygous familial hypercholesterolemia (HoFH).
For these patients, in fact, lomitapide offered significant
potential to provide effective treatment of their condition."
Dr Meagher explains: "HoFH is a serious, rare genetic
disease that impairs the function of the receptor responsible
for removing LDL-Cholesterol, `bad' cholesterol, from the
body. A loss of LDL receptor function results in extreme
elevation of blood cholesterol levels. HoFH patients often
develop premature and progressive atherosclerosis, a
narrowing or blocking of the arteries. In the United States,
HoFH occurs in approximately one in one million individuals.
For those with HoFH, heart attacks and death often occur
before the age of 30. Lomitapide works by impairing the
creation of the lipid particles that ultimately give rise to LDL"
The lomitapide research was supported by a partnership
formed between University of Pennsylvania and Aegerion
Pharmaceuticals, a biopharmaceutical company dedicated
to the development of innovative therapies for patients with
debilitating often fatal, rare diseases. Research team leaders,
Dr Daniel Rader, Dr Marina Cuchel, and Dr Meagher, saw 14
years of research work come to fruition in December 2012
when the US Food and Drug Administration approved the
drug lomitapide.
"The approach to research at the University of Penn is very
dynamic. As a researcher, I find the openness new to ideas
and groundbreaking work is very exciting. It provides
the ideal supportive academic environment but it also
challenges you to make the business case for your research
programme. There's a constructive mix of the academic and
the entrepreneurial."
Teaching has always been a passion of Dr Meagher's and
her teaching work has been recognised with multiple
awards including: the Dean's Award for the Development of
Innovative Educational Programs (1999), Medical Student
Government Awards for Basic and Integrated Science
Education (2000, 2002, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011);
RCSI alumnus makes drug breakthrough
with top US university research team
Distinguished RCSI alumnus, Dr Emma Anne Meagher MD, Associate Professor
of Medicine and Pharmacology at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of
Pennsylvania, spoke to
RCSI Matters
on a recent visit to her alma mater about her
work in the development of a new drug for a potentially fatal condition and her
commitment to education