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David Whitcomb is Professor of Medicine, Cell Biology and Physiology, and Human Genetics at the University of Pittsburgh; Chief of the Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition, and Director of the Center for Genomic Sciences. He leads an active research team, focusing on pancreatic diseases, and provides an information service on pancreas-related issues to patients, physicians, and scientist through Pancreas.org.
David Whitcomb lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a former industrial center that been transformed into a banking, education, healthcare, and high-tech city. He is married to Chris Whitcomb and has four growing children.
Dr Whitcomb graduated from Manchester College in 1978 with a B.Sc. He then went on to obtain an M.Sc. in Physiology in 1980 from The Ohio State University, a PhD in Physiology in 1983, and an MD in 1985.
He completed an internal medicine residency program at Duke University in 1988, and a fellowship in gastroenterology at Duke in 1991 working with Steve Vigna PhD and Ian Taylor MD.
During his fellowship, Dr Whitcomb used a new method that he developed to make the paradigm-shifting discovery that gut hormones (e.g. pancreatic polypeptide and peptide YY) act, in part, by completing a feedback loop from the gut to the brain to modulate digestive function. The key finding was that PP and PYY have specific receptors in the brainstem. He also found out that they cross the blood-brain barrier through the vomiting center (area postrema), and interact with the center that control visceral function (Am J Med Sci 1992 Nov; 304(5):334-8).
Dr Whitcomb was recruited to the University of Pittsburgh in 1991. He has served as Chief of the Nutrition Support Service and Chief of Gastroenterology at the VA Medical Center, and is currently Chief of the Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh. He also developed and directs the Center for Genomic Sciences since 1995.
Dr Whitcomb conducts basic and translational research with a focus on pancreatic diseases. His laboratory group discovered the gene causing hereditary pancreatitis and other causes of pancreatic disease. In a landmark series of studies he mapped the hereditary pancreatitis gene to chromosome 7q35 (Gastroenterology 1996; 110(6):1975-80), and identified the gene as trypsin (Nat Genet 1996; 14(2):141-5). In addition, he leads several research projects on alcoholic pancreatitis and pancreatic physiology.
He has published over 100 manuscripts, over 100 abstracts, and recently edited a book on inherited diseases of the pancreas.
Dr Whitcomb continues to be actively supported by NIH R01, VA Merit Review and foundation funding.
He is a Counselor for the American Gastroenterology Association, the American Pancreas Association, and the International Association of Pancreatology. He is also an Associate Editor for Pancreas, Digestive Diseases and Sciences, and Pancreatology. He serves as a peer reviewer for a number of scientific journals, and serves as a grant reviewer for the NIH, VA, DOD, and other institutions. He co-founded the Midwest Multicenter Pancreatic Study Group and serves on national and international committees for the major gastroenterology and pancreatic societies.
- What made you decide to become a gastroenterologist?
- I was interested in endocrine physiology and hormone-receptor control mechanisms, especially of some of the gut hormones. I was planning to do an endocrine fellowship at the NIH and work with Jesse Roth on the insulin receptor. I had mapped the receptors of pancreatic polypeptide, and, as a medical intern at Duke, talked to Ian Taylor MD PhD about this hormone. He offered me a GI fellowship and a position in his lab. I initially rejected the offer. However, I discussed the option with Tom O'Dorisio, an endocrinologist and friend from Ohio State University. He told me, "Dave, I know that you love endocrinology, but my advice to you as an endocrinologist is to go into GASTROENTEROLOGY!" So I did.
- Who was the teacher you admired the most?
- Richard Jefferies PhD, from Grace College, Winona Lake, Indiana. When I was in college I had changed my major from history, to business, to art, to chemistry, and was about to drop out of school because I could not see myself in any of these fields. I had taken a course in plant biology, taught by Richard Jefferies. He heard that I was dropping out of school to work in graphic arts, and called me at work, at home, and urged me to enroll in at least one more class - a Human Anatomy and Physiology class that he was planning to teach. He told me that he was very excited about the course because he believed that I would be able to take it, and love it. He told me that he thought that this was my knack, and that he was preparing it with me in mind. After repeated calls I finally agreed to take the course. Within two weeks I could not put the textbook down, and I knew what I wanted to do with my career. I admire him because he saw something in me and pursued me for my best interest.
- Which research paper influenced you the most?
- There are many great papers. I do not have a favorite.
- What is the most important fact that you have discovered?
- That trypsin causes hereditary pancreatitis, and that it is the key enzyme in initiating pancreatitis. In addition, that chronic pancreatitis arises from recurrent acute pancreatitis, and the brain regulates digestive function through hormonal feedback mechanisms. That rapid association-dissociation, use-dependent channel blockers can unblock blocked channels. Also, the mechanism through which the pancreas secretes high concentrations of bicarbonate and the role of fasting in enhanced acetaminophen toxicity.
- What is your unfulfilled ambition?
- To write a book on the Structure and Function of a New Testament Church.
- What is your greatest regret?
- Perhaps missed opportunities. I have tried to make sure that it was not lack of time with my family.
- How do you relax?
- Playing with my children. I also enjoy drawing and listening to music (jazz).
- What is your favorite sport?
- American football and soccer.
- What is your best place in the world?
- What is your favorite film?
- "The Princess Bride".
- What car do you drive?
- A 1996 Nissan Maxima.
- What is your best electronic 'toy'?
- My computer.
- What book are you reading at the moment?
- I am reading through the Bible and a commentary on the book of New Testament book of Titus.
- Why did you get in involved in GastroHep.com?
- I was informed about it by e-mail.