25 Years of Pivotal Work Transforms Pediatric Healthcare
By Monica Surfaro Spigelman
You won’t hear the phrase “gut microbiome” in everyday conversation, but when you mention it to Dr. Fayez K. Ghishan, he leans forward, eager to discuss the millions of microbes that live in the human intestinal tract.
His work on the role of a balanced microbiome as it relates to children’s well-being is a wealth of scientific discovery that continues to steer Arizona to prominence in pediatric healthcare.
Ghishan is the transformative leader and beloved physician-scientist who in 2020 celebrated 25 years as director of the University of Arizona’s Steele Children’s Research Center and chair of the medical school’s Department of Pediatrics. His contributions to children’s health have created a blueprint for excellence that blends scientific achievement with innovation in clinical practice and physician training.
There have been no shortages of hallmark moments since Ghishan’s arrival in Tucson in 1995, when he was recruited from Vanderbilt University to head UArizona’s pediatrics department and direct the Steele Children’s Research Center. After 16 years at the Tennessee institution, Ghishan was ready to build a world-class center of pediatrics here. His vision was three-pronged: recruit top physicians, meet clinical needs and establish operations in translational research.
“Research moves medicine forward,” said Ghishan, whose work in pediatric gastroenterology spans 53 years. “I knew there was opportunity in Tucson to build highly academic research clinics, which would attract top medical students and provide the needed clinical care.”
Ghishan looked first to create centers of excellence that addressed children’s disorders, particularly as they involved the GI tract or gut microbiome. With so many children suffering from allergies and complex problems involving the airway and digestive tract, aerodigestive diseases became an early focus.
Ghishan’s passion to advance medical knowledge was contagious and engaged collaborators. The Phoenix Women’s Board of the Steele Children’s Research Center, now known as PANDA, embraced Ghishan’s ideas. When PANDA took its community stewardship further by funding this critical need in 2007, Ghishan assembled a team of leading physicians and created the PANDA Children’s Aerodigestive Disorders Center of Excellence – the only one of its kind in the Southwest.
Ghishan then expanded the Steele Children’s Research Center’s abilities to tackle other critical issues in children’s health. In 2016, the Children’s Postinfectious Autoimmune Encephalopathy Center became the first in the Southwest to bring together clinical care, teaching and science to treat an often misdiagnosed autoimmune disorder, in which the body’s immune system attacks the brain following an infection like strep.
Growing centers of excellence involved two leadership traits, according to Ghishan. “To be successful in life you need to have a vision,” he said. “But vision must be coupled with passion – otherwise it will never work.”
Communities need to invest in families, Ghishan said, and that investment has the power to influence a region’s economy. Building a children’s hospital in Tucson was a natural extension of this aspiration.
“When I would speak about establishing a children’s hospital during Steele Advisory Board meetings, one of the center’s founders, Joan Diamond, would nod and express interest,” recalled Ghishan. Ultimately, Diamond’s support became a driving force in helping Ghishan open the first academic pediatric medical center in Arizona. The Banner Diamond Children’s Medical Center opened in 2010 and Ghishan became physician-in-chief for the hospital in 2011.
The impact of the hospital and the Steele Children’s Research Center in the region and beyond continues to grow. Last year, Ghishan and his multidisciplinary approach rocketed the center into further prominence as a pediatric research institution – placing it No. 31, just above Yale, based on National Institutes of Health research funding.
Throughout his distinguished quarter-century in Tucson, Ghishan remains the Consummate pediatrician and quintessential mentor – attentive to each of his patients and an inspiration to the next generation of physicians.
“One physician-scientist I trained came in as a pure clinician,” Ghishan recalled. “We discussed a project that would ignite her passion. In this case, it was providing adequate nutrition to critically ill children. She took ownership of this research and her discoveries now influence the care of these children, particularly after serious surgery. She’s now also an independent investigator and critical care division chief. We need to continue to cultivate leaders through mentorship, so that young doctors contribute to further advancements in our profession that improve children’s health.”
His career in the lab has led to a number of discoveries internationally recognized for their importance to the fields of pediatric gastroenterology, hepatology and nutrition. He was the first to document nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, a form of the most common cause of chronic liver disease in children. His research in cloning the gene responsible for absorbing sodium in the GI tract has advanced the understanding of diarrheal disorders and the relation to zinc deficiency. This discovery led to World Health Organization recommendations on zinc supplements, which continue to guide the care and healing of children with diarrheal disorders globally.
Ghishan’s discoveries also have netted him numerous awards. His work has been continually funded by the National Institutes of Health for more than 30 years. In 1996 and again in 2008, he received the prestigious MERIT Award from the National Institutes of Health. He has authored more than 400 publications and edited the benchmark textbook, Physiology of the Gastrointestinal Tract, now in its sixth edition.
His knowledge of science, mentorship and pediatric medicine recently led to a new appointment as medical director of the University’s Clinical and Translational Science Research Centers (CATS). As one of UArizona’s most prolific scientists, Ghishan will now lead the distribution of CATS resources and services, oversee clinical research operations and coordinate with clinical partners in pivotal work, including COVID-19 antibody testing.
Ghishan is passionate about the influence of a “bedside to bench and bench to bedside” model in public health: “Pure basic science must be coupled with clinical translation and mechanism. Knowledge in the lab is translated to healing people. And what we discover by treating our patients is translated to our research.”
A photo of Ghishan as a child in Jordan, dressed in a white jacket and carrying a briefcase, still sits on his desk, as a reminder of his mother’s early wishes for him to become a doctor. When he was 16, Ghishan traveled to Turkey with $50 in his pocket, entering medical school and fulfilling his dream. Returning to his native country to practice, Ghishan witnessed deaths of children suffering from GI disorders, malnutrition and dehydration from diarrhea. Those encounters resulted in his decision to continue studies in the United States, pursuing research that would give him insights into the causes and treatments of these disorders.
Last year, the Fayez K. Ghishan, MD, PANDA Endowed Directorship was established, acknowledging in perpetuity Ghishan’s impactful work. Funded primarily by PANDA, the endowment ensures the mission of the Steele Children’s Research Center. Ghishan is grateful for its reminder of the welcome he received 25 years ago, when he, his wife, Joan, and their four children decided to move here. With a mountainous backdrop reminiscent of Ghishan’s Jordan birthplace, Tucson has truly become his home.
“Medicine and science offer us a priceless perspective,” Ghishan said. “Together, they remind us of the incredible privilege it is to continually create knowledge and then translate that to advance the wellbeing of the world’s children.”