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Cardiologist Andrew Marks Wins Hearts and Minds

Andrew Marks

Research scientists like Andrew Marks can lead extremely stressful lives, often facing criticism and feedback from peers as they push for new discoveries. So when Marks, director of the Center for Molecular Cardiology at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC), received a phone call in May notifying him of his election to the National Academy of Sciences, he felt elated. "Mostly what you hear is what people don't like," Marks said. But with this recognition from the Academy, he added, "you realize that a lot more people appreciate your contributions, and that is reassuring."

So far, Marks, who is 50 and also chair of the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at the College of Physicians & Surgeons and recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, can count numerous contributions to science and improving the lives of patients suffering from heart disease. He was the first to discover, for example, a new use for Sirolimus, a drug that helps keep stents, devices inserted into a patient's coronary artery to prevent blockage or closure, from getting clogged.

His latest achievement in cardiology is a unique, molecular-based heart arrhythmia drug that he has developed and tested, which could prevent sudden death from heart failure including those associated with inherited heart disorders. Although the drug has only been tested successfully in mice, and might not be available for five to seven years, Marks believes it offers hope to millions of patients who suffer from heart failure -- the leading cause of death in the developed world. The drug works by patching a leak in the heart's calcium channel and is based on work Marks has doggedly pursued for more than 15 years in the lab.

His career choice of researcher was made for a very specific reason: to be able to help as many people as possible. "As a physician, you might touch a few thousand lives, but as a researcher you can impact millions," said Marks, who graduated from Amherst College and received an M.D. from Harvard University, followed by an internship and residency at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Many people have influenced his choice of studies and career. At Mass General, Marks became interested in cardiology through a renowned clinical cardiologist, Roman DeSanctis, who showed him how a cardiologist can make a difference in a field in which the cure can be as "acute and dramatic" as the disease.

Another influence on his life and career was closer to home. Marks' father, a former dean of Columbia's medical school and head of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center for 20 years, taught him about the culture of the physician-scientist, he says. Marks came to Columbia in 1997, which was a homecoming of sorts for someone who had grown up in the city. Today, Marks lives with his wife and three children, ages 17 to 25, in Larchmont, N.Y. His home is decorated with contemporary works by artists such as Lucien Freud and Philip Guston, courtesy of his brother Matthew Marks, a New York gallerist.

When he's not in his 11th floor office decorated with brightly colored posters by Ellsworth Kelly and Brice Marden, or rushing to file grant applications, Marks can usually be found piloting his 42-foot sailboat on Long Island Sound with his family as crew. He started sailing as a youngster when his family spent summers in Woods Hole, Mass. What he loves about sailing is the feeling of the wind and the water and being fully occupied with everything but the daily grind of research and work. The experience, he says, is regenerative. "To be successful as a scientist you have to think of what others have not thought of," he said. "You have to refresh your mind and clear your brain."

Besides science and sailing, Marks became involved in Middle East politics four years ago as the founder of the International Academic Friends of Israel, an organization with several hundred members, which is aimed at counteracting efforts in Europe to boycott Israeli academic institutions. Coming from an academic family, Marks explains, he feels strongly about academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas -- notions that are threatened by boycotts. "The idea of trying to influence a country by boycotting its universities seemed really wrong-minded," he said.

With his wide interests, academic accolades and personable manner, colleagues describe Marks as a Renaissance man, one who is comfortable speaking with other scientists about his work and who also makes his work, often complex, accessible to others. "Many times scientists can't talk the talk -- they are in the clouds," said Robert Thompson, senior director of development at CUMC. "Andy is a dreamer and a doer with the brilliance, focus and dedication to unlock the mysteries of the heart. And he can explain it to a lay person."

For Marks, scientific and academic research is a key to making the world a better place. As such, he started a program four years ago at Columbia that allows talented minority students from Hunter College to take advantage of research facilities at the school. His own work at Columbia will continue, Marks says, because he loves the University, New York City and scientific research. "You never know what is coming next, or what is around the corner," he said. "It could be a discovery that requires me to learn a new field or body of knowledge. It is always exciting and challenging."

 

Published: Jul 11, 2005
Last modified: Jul 08, 2005

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