Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute at Lake Nona
LAKE NONA – Peter Crawford may be an expert in cardiometabolics, but he’s also masterful at explaining in laymen’s terms what he does at Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute.
“Frequently when I am asked, there is a meal in front of me,” said Crawford, who is associate professor and associate director of the Cardiovascular Pathobiology Program at the Lake Nona campus. “It is convenient for me to say we’re trying to understand why this fish, prepared this way, might be really, really good for you, but not so good for me. Or why this pizza is really bad for me, and not as bad for you,” he said.
“To sum it up in a way that’s accessible to as many people as possible, it’s about understanding how we can individualize metabolism, understanding how we metabolize food and medications as individuals, and trying to then decipher what unique diagnostic pieces we can extract from each individual and what unique approaches we can deliver to each individual. That’s the fundamental essence of why we’re doing what we’re doing,” said Crawford. The work of his team shows promise for discovering personalized medicine and treatments for heart function, diabetes and obesity.
Crawford, 45, arrived in Medical City last fall after spending more than 20 years either studying, training or working at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, where he earned his MD and PhD in a dual-enrollment program. His last academic appointments there before coming to Sanford-Burnham were as assistant professor of medicine, genetics, and developmental biology, and co-director of the Oliver M. Langenberg Physician Scientist Training Program.
This is not the first time Sanford-Burnham has welcomed physician scientists from Washington University. Dwight Towler, MD, PhD, professor and director of the Cardiovascular Pathobiology Program worked with Crawford in St. Louis before coming here in 2012. Crawford said he knew Towler, now his boss, well in St. Louis and regards him as “a paragon. He’s absolutely encyclopedic, but very creative. Merge that with the fact he’s just an incredibly compassionate, caring human being, he’s a formidable force. A rare individual.”
Not long after Crawford came to Sanford-Burnham, he was joined by another colleague from St. Louis, Andre d’Avignon, who was previously director of the high – resolution nuclear-magnetic resonance facility in the department of chemistry at Washington University. He will join Crawford’s research team and apply his research expertise with the ultimate goal of developing biomarkers that will inform treatment decisions and enable clinicians to determine earlier whether cardiometabolic patients will respond to certain medicines.
D’Avignon has been “a friend and colleague for 7 years and is a scientific leader in the studies that we are doing,” said Crawford. “He loves the environment (at Sanford-Burnham) and is s dedicated to learning, not for the sake of achievement, per se, but the process of learning and asking compelling questions and trying to unravel the mysteries. He’s a special person.”
Towler summed up his delight in a media release that announced the arrival of his newest team members: “These important recruits have specialized expertise that will accelerate our research into subclasses of cardiometabolic disease. Their discoveries will contribute to the development of personalized approaches to treating various types of heart disease, and, in particular, hold promise for diabetics who have a unique form of the disease.”
And the addition of top medical professionals who hail from St. Louis doesn’t end there. Joining Crawford is his wife, Jane Chen, MD, who is working at the Orlando VA Medical Center as a clinical cardiac-arrhythmia specialist. (Crawford has accepted an adjunct appointment at the VA as a staff physician where he will work with veterans in a clinical setting, but also, he said, to “engage with physicians and work together to personalize diagnostic modalities and treatment measures in the context of studying human populations.”)
Crawford described his spouse as a kindred multitasker “who can actually balance more things than I can. I always say she should wear a cape. For the past 15 years she has been working every bit as much as I have” while also being an “incredible” mother to their sons, ages 12 and 10.
Crawford said he knew “when I was young that I would need to marry someone who either did something similar or was as committed to their career as I was, because only that person would understand.” Balancing priorities and schedules can be a challenge, Crawford said. “It takes a lot of communication, a lot of patience bilaterally to make everything work without compromising standards of excellence in any domain. We are highly attuned to efficiencies in every aspect, whether it is our house, our kids” or careers, he said. “We have to make sure we can we can blow off a little steam and take care of ourselves.”
That was “one of the many reasons we were excited about coming here, the opportunity to reset in an environment that we would be able to comfortably have all those things – the elements of our careers and be attentive to our children and ourselves for decades,” said Crawford.
“The whole mantra in our house is all about loving what you do then committing to it fully. And do everything you can to give everything you have to it so you can be your personal best. Leave no regrets, whether it’s on the playing field or learning about a fascinating topic in science class,” added Crawford. “Hopefully we’ll be able to impart that in the few years we have left with them full-time.”
“One of the aspects we were excited about when we decided to come here was … to make connections with the community a little stronger than in our previous positions and geography. We are already beginning to do that,” he said.
“It’s absolutely phenomenal here,” said Crawford. “We’re so fortunate that we’ve been welcomed by people not only on the work side, but also in the local community and connections through our kids’ schools.” And the winter weather is delightful, if not a tad surreal, he said. “The boys are in heaven. They have not looked back at all … and are enjoying their new winter sport – swimming!”
But at Sanford-Burnham, Crawford said he is diving in on a “microscopic, as well as a macroscopic scale” as he transitions his research program. “This institute and Medical City are quite nimble and quite well-positioned for innovative approaches, the ability to ask important, incisive and highly clinical relevant questions, and address them in ways that are very much on the cutting edge in terms of the range of techniques being used,” he said.
“This is one of the most transformative periods in biomedical science history because of the technologies that have emerged and are still rapidly emerging in engineering, chemistry and mathematics. The ability to couple the power of those fields with the biomedical sciences is at an unparalleled point. It is one of the best times to be in diseases-oriented biomedical research.”