February 10, 2014

Richard L. Guerrant, MD

According to William A. Petri, Jr., MD, PhD, a friend and colleague of Richard L. Guerrant, MD, the recipient of 2014 Maxwell Finland Award for Scientific Achievement, “Dr. Guerrant is an international leader in the field of gastrointestinal pathogens and his hallmark contributions to better understanding of the causes, long-term effects, and treatment of persistent or chronic diarrhea make him an ideal recipient of the Maxwell Finland Award.”

A trip to the Congo in the late 1960s sparked Dr. Guerrant’s interest in helping those suffering from the effects of childhood diarrhea. That first trip cemented one of Dr. Guerrant’s core beliefs that “poverty is the greatest disease facing humanity.” His work in Bangladesh, South Africa, and especially Brazil, where he has long and deep ties, showed him that there is “no cultural difference in what it means to lose a child as a parent.” These beliefs have driven Dr. Guerrant to improve the lives of children in resource-poor areas by attacking persistent diarrhea—a major cause of morbidity, mortality, and economic drain.

One of Dr. Guerrant’s key accomplishments in the field of gastrointestinal pathogens was defining the mechanisms by which Enterotoxigenic E. coli (ETEC) produce a cholera-like diarrhea. This discovery led to an improved therapy for acute diarrheal diseases. It was his study of chronic diarrhea that, according to Dr. Petri, lead to the “remarkable discovery of the long-term physical and cognitive impact of early childhood diarrhea – a loss of up to 10 IQ points in impoverished children lacking adequate water and sanitation.”

Another colleague, Charles (Chuck) Carpenter, MD, notes that “few individuals have made greater clinically relevant contributions to biomedical science in the last three decades. Dr. Guerrant has demonstrated enormous vision in developing his demanding career goals, as well as great insight and out-of-the-box thinking in designing his research programs.”

After nearly four decades of distinguished scholarship and service at University of Virginia, Dr. Guerrant continues his work in the study of enteric disease. He is currently leading a multi-million dollar grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on “Malnutrition as an Enteric Disease (MAL-ED).” This state-of-the-art project will examine the impact of repeated gut infections in the first few years of life on long-term physical and cognitive outcomes. Children are being enrolled at birth at sites in Africa, Latin America, and Asia and the team hopes to follow them for a long enough period to assess their cognitive function at 6 to 9 years of age, when more accurate and robust measurement is possible.

It is especially fitting that Dr. Guerrant receive this award, as Dr. Maxwell Finland was his first attending physician when he began his internship in medicine. Dr. Guerrant’s passion for the transcendence of global health as a unifying human value fuels and drives him forward even today. He sees us on the cusp of major evolutionary change. Where we once evolved thanks to our aggression, our best hope now is the reverse—to work together, caring about others.

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