Matters of the Heart

HeartDr. Suzanne Oparil has changed the face of cardiovascular disease.

Written by Lindsey Lowe Osborne

Photo by Beau Gustafson

To say that cardiologist Dr. Suzanne Oparil, MD, FACC, FAHA, FASH, has contributed much to the mission of understanding and treating cardiovascular disease would be true, but perhaps it wouldn’t quite capture the magnitude of her accomplishments. Let me put it this way: Every day, hundreds of people file up and down the sidewalks into and around the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), where Oparil works. Chances are, some of those very people have been affected by her research. Chances are, you or someone you know has been affected by her research.

Oparil knew from a young age that she wanted to pursue a career in science, but that was a different kind of declaration then than it is now. She grew up in the 40s on a dairy farm in New York; her parents were immigrants from the Czech Republic. At the time, young girls who wanted to be doctors weren’t necessarily the norm. It was Oparil’s brother who suggested the idea of medical school to her. “I was always interested in science and thought about pursuing a career in bench research like Madame Curie. But in the small city where I lived, many of the community leaders and many of our neighbors were doctors. The culture was such that everyone looked up to the physicians in the community as very smart and important people,” Oparil explains. “The critical point came one day when my brother and I were looking at the comic section of the Sunday newspaper and he asked me what I wanted to be. I said I wanted to be a scientist/biologist. He said, ‘Why don’t you go to medical school? You can do research and make a lot more money that way.’ So, I said, ‘OK’ and, at the age of about 12, I decided to try to go into medicine.”

Though her path was perhaps the less traveled one, she was undaunted in her pursuit. She received her bachelor’s from Cornell University in New York in 1961 and her medical degree from Columbia University in 1965. From there, she completed her residency at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital and her cardiology fellowship at Massachusetts General Hospital. Oparil says that though men outnumbered women 9 to 1 in medical school, she didn’t experience any bias against women until the second half of her training, when she completed rotations in the hospital. “In the hospital-based part of training, some of our superiors, almost all of whom were men, didn’t believe that women could work as hard or do as good of a job as they did, particularly with respect to working long hours and doing physically challenging tasks, like standing in the operating room for many hours on end,” she explains. “There were almost no women in leadership positions, such as chief residents in training programs or program directors or department chairs. We were a bit short on female role models during that time. Clearly, things are different now. We have women who are in leadership positions in medical schools, hospitals, professional societies, and regulatory agencies.”

Certainly Oparil herself stands as one such role model for the 79 (out of 185) women who entered UAB’s School of Medicine in 2013. Today, she is a distinguished professor of medicine and professor of cell, developmental, and integrative biology at UAB, as well as the director of the Vascular Biology and Hypertension Program (which is Oparil’s research group.) “It is a great honor to be able to see the young people that you have mentored grow up through the faculty ranks and make major contributions to research and clinical cardiology that are way beyond what one could do on one’s own,” she says of leading the group. She spends her days seeing patients (usually with hard-to-treat cardiovascular issues) in clinic; writing manuscripts and review articles; reviewing research proposals; discussing research issues with collaborators; attending conferences; and mentoring junior colleagues (though that’s certainly not a comprehensive list.) Her accolades, honors, and positions could likely fill a whole magazine, but some of the most notable include serving as past president for the American Heart Association, the American Society of Hypertension, and the American Federation for Medical Research. “Being selected as president of the American Heart Association (AHA) was clearly a highlight,” she says. “Being the volunteer leader of an organization with many millions of volunteers, very high visibility, and activities in research, education, and advocacy was a unique experience. It was clearly a great honor, and it gave me a very clear picture of how the world of heart health and heart disease works outside the academic setting.”

Much of her research centers around diseases of the heart and has contributed greatly to treating hypertension (high blood pressure). She held a significant role in determining that angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) is involved in vascular disease, leading to the development of ACE inhibitors, which are widely used to treat hypertension. “When working in the laboratory as a postdoctoral fellow studying peptide hormones that cause blood pressure to rise, the angiotensins, it became clear that either blocking the generation of these hormones by ACE or blocking their action on receptor molecules with angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs) might provide effective treatment for high blood pressure and its complications, such as heart failure” she explains. “From that time on, I spent about 20 years developing and testing novel approaches for treating high blood pressure, pulmonary hypertension, and heart failure. This turned out to be the ‘golden age’ of drug development for cardiovascular disease and it was very exciting to work in the field!”

She didn’t always know she wanted to be a cardiologist though; in some ways, she happened upon that. When she was a resident, two years after she completed medical school, it came time to choose a subspecialty. “I had no particular preference but at that time, my father died of congestive heart failure related to coronary disease (ischemic heart disease),” she says. “Also, it was a golden age of new things in cardiology. The drama of what cardiologists can do plus the personal effect of my own father having a fatal heart condition pushed me into cardiology.” It was clearly a good choice and a specialty for which she is well suited. She continues to be excited about the advancements in the field, about working with patients, and about the new generation of medical professionals, particularly at UAB, where she’s been since 1977. “I looked at 11 positions around the country, and found that UAB, which was in a growth phase at the time, and had a towering reputation in the cardiovascular field, appeared to be the best place to be. UAB has turned out not to be a disappointment,” she says. “UAB has had a transformational effect on the city of Birmingham and the state of Alabama. I feel privileged to be able to make a small contribution to UAB’s great success in generating new knowledge and in improving the health of the population.”

Dr. Oparil says she has no plans to slow down or retire; rather, she’ll continue to contribute the field of cardiology, the people who are affected by cardiovascular disease, and those who are rising under her leadership. Certainly those people and many of those on bustling sidewalks around the world look different because of her efforts. “My greatest success is the ability to work in a number of different research areas and make important findings that relate to important health problems, such as high blood pressure, pulmonary hypertension, and vascular disease and to women’s cardiovascular health,” she says. “Research that has been and is still being carried out in my laboratory has led to insights that paved the way for important new therapies.”

Leave a Reply