Marc Rothenberg Earns UC College of Medicine’s Top Award
Marc Rothenberg was honored by the UC College of Medicine with the Daniel Drake Medal for his indelible impact on the field of allergy and immunology and the development of novel therapies for patients suffering from severe immune-mediated diseases.
Marc Rothenberg with Juan Patino, a patient from Colombia, whose life was changed following treatment at the Cincinnati Center for Eosinophilic Disorders.
Marc Rothenberg, MD, PhD, has always had a passion for understanding how things work. As a child, he would take apart telephones, cameras and other devices to satisfy his curiosity.
“My parents encouraged and supported me,” he says, “and even though I wasn’t discovering new knowledge, it was new to me. Of all the training I’ve had through the years, I still consider my dad to be my best professor, even though neither he nor my mother went to college.”
Marc’s curiosity has paid off with a long list of accomplishments and awards, the most recent of which is being named a 2023 Daniel Drake Medal recipient—the highest honor given by the UC College of Medicine. But it might be more helpful to start at the beginning….
As a young boy growing up on Long Island, New York, Marc says he had a knack for figuring things out. He recalls turning the bathroom in his family’s apartment into a chemistry lab focused on improving the chemicals used to develop photographic film. His findings earned him a first-place Eastman Kodak Award for high school science projects.
He also was inspired by his high school swim coach Bob Saltz.
“He emphasized the importance of hard work, setting goals, the value of being a good team member and never giving up,” says Marc. “Those principles continue to guide me today.”
Marc attended Brandeis University, where he majored in chemistry and biochemistry. There he did his first research projects under the mentorship of the late William P. Jencks, MD, one of the leading biochemists of his generation.
“Dr. Jencks helped me to appreciate the importance of basic science in understanding disease processes and how the human body works,” he says. “He taught me how to ask fundamental questions, and he demonstrated humility through his acknowledgment that, despite his expertise, there was so much he had yet to learn.”
In 1983, Marc began his training as a physician researcher at Harvard Medical School.
“It was a pretty humbling experience,” he says. “Nearly all my classmates excelled at something fantastic, which made me wonder, ‘What’s my gig?’”
Not to worry. Marc distinguished himself in the laboratory of famous immunologist K. Frank Austen, MD. It was there that he became fascinated with eosinophils (specialized cells of the immune system that are involved in allergic disorders) and made the unexpected discovery that eosinophils are long-lived cells. Austen initially rejected this result, but Marc applied his swim coach’s principle of persistence and eventually convinced him. The findings were published in prestigious journals and opened up a whole new area of allergy research.
After earning his MD/PhD in 1990, Marc did pediatric residency and a double fellowship in allergy/immunology and hematology/oncology at Boston Children’s Hospital and post-doc research training in genetics with Philip Leder, MD, at Harvard. He continued to focus on his allergy interests—specifically on another pathway related to eosinophils, called eotaxins—which led to the publication of a series of papers that contributed to the development of a mechanism to explain eosinophilia.
A Surprise Recruitment
In 1996, Marc was looking for a job with the idea of going to Stanford. But while he was at a national meeting, he met Jeff Whitsett, MD, a Cincinnati Children’s neonatologist whose research had led to the production of human surfactant for premature infants.
“He told me to stop by Cincinnati on my way to California,” recalls Marc. “I decided to take him up on the invitation.”
During his visit, he met Tom Boat, MD, who was chair of the Department of Pediatrics and director of the Children’s Hospital Research Foundation.
“I was very impressed with Tom,” he says. “Two days later, he sent me a job offer via FedEx. And it was a pretty nice offer. I thought about the career I could build here. It was a great opportunity, so I accepted, which turned out to be a smart decision. Cincinnati Children’s has been a wonderful environment. I have a great research team and a lab that covers the four cornerstones of research—basic science, translational medicine, genetics and clinical trials. A lot of researchers aren’t fortunate enough to have all of those together in the same enterprise. There’s no better place in the world, in my opinion.”
Marc has made the most of his 27 years here. He is director of the Division of Allergy and Immunology. He is also the founder and director of the Cincinnati Center for Eosinophilic Disorders and the national Consortium of Eosinophilic Gastrointestinal Disease Researchers. He has helped thousands of patients around the world reclaim their lives, like Juan Patino, of Cali, Colombia, who had a lifelong history of GI tract issues.
“The body was not created haphazardly,” he explains. “It is an amazing machine that functions better than any computer. In every cell, there are 10,000 moving pieces that work together every second we’re alive. It’s a nearly perfect, beautiful puzzle, but until we figure it out, it’s incomplete. Every discovery we’ve made has been like finding a new puzzle piece. So, we need to keep doing research to translate the pieces into better treatments for patients.”
As he contemplates receiving the Daniel Drake Medal award, Marc is both honored and humbled. “I appreciate the recognition,” he says, “but I’m not the smartest guy in the medical school. I have great colleagues; I have administrative assistants who have contributed to some ideas in a big way. And certainly, the people in the lab, the students, the Environmental Services person who cleans the lab—they are all part of the team. I represent the team, so I get to take some of the credit, but I don’t want to take it away from the others.”
Marc, who has received many awards, says you can’t let the accolades go to your head, and you can’t be satisfied with resting on your laurels.
He credits his wife, Joy, who has been a great supporter and partner since they married in 1990.
He is grateful to his patients and the many donors who have helped fund his research, especially the Campaign Urging Research For Eosinophilic Diseases (CURED Foundation) and its founder Ellyn Kodroff, Dave and Denise Bunning, and Michael and Amy Zicarelli.
“We need to do more because a lot of people are suffering,” he says. “I think of my mother who had juvenile diabetes and what the development of insulin meant to her. Every scientific discovery has an impact on someone’s life. We have 20 projects going on in the lab right now, and we learn new things every week. It excites me to think about the surprising results we’re going to see that will change the way we think about disease and how to treat it.”
For this reason, he advocates for the support of research on all levels.
“You can’t cure a disease without understanding the basic science behind it,” he says. “And without basic science, translational and clinical science will decline. That’s what I love about Cincinnati Children’s. Everyone works together. Everyone is contributing.”
Marc Rothenberg has distinguished himself as a physician and scientist throughout his career:
- He is a member of the National Academy of Medicine, one of only 10 Cincinnati Children’s faculty to ever receive this honor.
- With the support of his team, he was also awarded a National Institutes of Health Merit Award and a Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Research Achievement Award.
- He was elected a member of both the American Society for Clinical Investigation and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
- He currently serves as president-elect of the International Eosinophil Society and hopes to use this experience to positively influence future research and care for eosinophilic disease.
- Read about Rothenberg’s collaboration with the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.