Meet the Board

Robert Roberts, MD: A trailblazer in molecular cardiology

As one of the world’s foremost experts on molecular cardiology, Robert Roberts, MD, FRCPC, MACC, FAHA, LLD (Hon.), FRSC, has interests that range far outside the laboratory. He is a voracious reader of any material that helps explains why the world is the way it is, from history to philosophy to physics, and an avid traveler to places that hold answers to those questions. His thirst for knowledge has paid off professionally, as his development of the MCBK Test has been used for the past 3 decades to diagnose MI, and he built a world-renowned cardiology program at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

A native of Canada, Roberts received his medical degree from Dalhousie University and completed his residency and fellowship at the University of Toronto. He did research at the University of California in San Diego before being recruited to run the coronary care unit at Washington University in St. Louis. In 1982, he became chief of cardiology at Baylor College of Medicine.

He returned to Canada in 2004, as president and CEO of the University of Ottawa Heart Institute and director of the John and Jennifer Ruddy Canadian Cardiovascular Genetics Centre. His many honors include the Distinguished Scientist Award from the American College of Cardiology in 1998 and the Distinguished Fellowship Award from the International Academy of Cardiology in 2012.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not practicing medicine?

I enjoy playing tennis and being part of my wine club.

If you hadn’t gone into cardiology or medicine, what would you have done?

I would have loved to have been a historian. I thought about pursuing philosophy as an undergraduate, but felt I would never be good enough to make a living at it. History to me is still a big hobby, and I read several history books each year. Looking at things in the order of the world and how they got to where they are gives me inspiration in terms of looking forward in how to do things.

What would you consider one of your biggest successes in your specialty?

Identifying the genes for cardiomyopathy put me on the track that I am on today. That introduced me to molecular biology, something that I have pursued since 1982 when I moved to Baylor College of Medicine and founded a cardiology group very much based on molecular cardiology as opposed to the classical hemodynamics.

What is the last book you read? Why, and what did you think of it?

It was Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. I loved that book. He took 3 years off as a journalist to write a book about everything from science to philosophy. Although he’s not a physicist, and I am not, when I read his section about physics and quantum mechanics, it gave me an understanding that I couldn’t have gotten without him.

Whom do you most admire and what would you ask that person if you had 5 minutes with him/her?

I would start first with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI because Christianity has been ruling a large part of the world for 2,000 years, and yet the so-called Vatican library, which has not been made available to anyone, surely must contain some interesting information about the early days of Christianity. The fact that it’s a kept secret probably increases our desire to know.

The other person would be Queen Elizabeth I. Most people probably do not realize that Elizabeth I was the one who really made England a major power. She defeated the Spanish Armada. It was under her rule that England became a great center of the arts and Shakespeare flourished. I would love to ask her about the day she rode up on her horse, knowing that the Spanish Armada was almost guaranteed to devour England; did she really think she was going to win? She had a lot of luck; a storm came up.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

When I was at Washington University in St. Louis in 1982 and was looking around to be chief of cardiology, Eugene Braunwald, MD, said to me, “Move somewhere where the ceiling is not obvious.” It gave me the opportunity to go and build something at Baylor.

Whom do you consider a mentor?

Eugene Braunwald and Burton E. Sobel, MD. When I finished my training in Toronto, I went to San Diego on a scholarship to do research for 2 years. Gene was head of medicine there. Shortly after I arrived, within 6 months, he moved to head up medicine at Harvard, and I went to work in Burt Sobel’s lab. Burt was my true first mentor in doing research. I developed a first quantitative assay for MCBK, which is the marker that was used to diagnose MI for the next 20 to 30 years. Then I went with Burt to Washington University in St. Louis and was on faculty with him and ran the coronary care unit for 9 years. He was a mentor, boss and friend for 11 years. When Gene moved to Harvard, we continued a good relationship. He remained a strong mentor. We collaborated and published together, and continue to collaborate today.

What kind of diet and exercise regimen do you follow?

I try to minimize meat. Whenever I’m eating out, I always eat fish. I love fruits but not vegetables, so I emphasize eating fruit. My predominant exercise is playing tennis.

What do you think will have the biggest influence on cardiology in the next 10 years?

Genetics, which is my area of research. Soon it will be feasible to sequence the complete DNA genome of all individuals. We know DNA predisposes individuals to most diseases. Identifying that predisposition is something that over the next 2 decades will give rise to personalized medicine, to developing the right drug for the right disease at the right dose. I feel strongly that, as a result, genetics will play a large part in prevention. It will give us new targets for drugs that can often be individualized, not only for the disease but also often for the individual. In addition, it will be possible to identify those for whom the drug doesn’t work and also look at, for example, allergies. More than 100,000 people die every year in the United States from allergies to natural products or to drugs. That’s certainly a genetic disease, and if you knew the genes involved responsible for the allergic reaction, it would be much easier to prevent the reaction.

What is your favorite travel destination?

Countries with a rich history. For example, going to Egypt, a cradle of modern civilization, is always exciting, as is going to Greece, which is a cradle of democracy.

What is your favorite restaurant?

In Ottawa, it is Signatures, which is a French school, one of two left in North America. The most unbelievable restaurant I’ve ever gone to is El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain. When I went there, it was ranked No. 6 in the world (by Restaurant magazine); today, it’s ranked No. 1. It’s 3 or 4 hours of unbelievable eating. For example, when they bring the olives out, they’re attached to little trees, and you pick them off the trees. The food is phenomenal Catalonian cuisine. One of my former fellows is now the dean at the university in Girona, so that’s how I got to go there. – by Erik Swain

As one of the world’s foremost experts on molecular cardiology, Robert Roberts, MD, FRCPC, MACC, FAHA, LLD (Hon.), FRSC, has interests that range far outside the laboratory. He is a voracious reader of any material that helps explains why the world is the way it is, from history to philosophy to physics, and an avid traveler to places that hold answers to those questions. His thirst for knowledge has paid off professionally, as his development of the MCBK Test has been used for the past 3 decades to diagnose MI, and he built a world-renowned cardiology program at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

A native of Canada, Roberts received his medical degree from Dalhousie University and completed his residency and fellowship at the University of Toronto. He did research at the University of California in San Diego before being recruited to run the coronary care unit at Washington University in St. Louis. In 1982, he became chief of cardiology at Baylor College of Medicine.

He returned to Canada in 2004, as president and CEO of the University of Ottawa Heart Institute and director of the John and Jennifer Ruddy Canadian Cardiovascular Genetics Centre. His many honors include the Distinguished Scientist Award from the American College of Cardiology in 1998 and the Distinguished Fellowship Award from the International Academy of Cardiology in 2012.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not practicing medicine?

I enjoy playing tennis and being part of my wine club.

If you hadn’t gone into cardiology or medicine, what would you have done?

I would have loved to have been a historian. I thought about pursuing philosophy as an undergraduate, but felt I would never be good enough to make a living at it. History to me is still a big hobby, and I read several history books each year. Looking at things in the order of the world and how they got to where they are gives me inspiration in terms of looking forward in how to do things.

What would you consider one of your biggest successes in your specialty?

Identifying the genes for cardiomyopathy put me on the track that I am on today. That introduced me to molecular biology, something that I have pursued since 1982 when I moved to Baylor College of Medicine and founded a cardiology group very much based on molecular cardiology as opposed to the classical hemodynamics.

What is the last book you read? Why, and what did you think of it?

It was Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. I loved that book. He took 3 years off as a journalist to write a book about everything from science to philosophy. Although he’s not a physicist, and I am not, when I read his section about physics and quantum mechanics, it gave me an understanding that I couldn’t have gotten without him.

Whom do you most admire and what would you ask that person if you had 5 minutes with him/her?

I would start first with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI because Christianity has been ruling a large part of the world for 2,000 years, and yet the so-called Vatican library, which has not been made available to anyone, surely must contain some interesting information about the early days of Christianity. The fact that it’s a kept secret probably increases our desire to know.

The other person would be Queen Elizabeth I. Most people probably do not realize that Elizabeth I was the one who really made England a major power. She defeated the Spanish Armada. It was under her rule that England became a great center of the arts and Shakespeare flourished. I would love to ask her about the day she rode up on her horse, knowing that the Spanish Armada was almost guaranteed to devour England; did she really think she was going to win? She had a lot of luck; a storm came up.

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What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

When I was at Washington University in St. Louis in 1982 and was looking around to be chief of cardiology, Eugene Braunwald, MD, said to me, “Move somewhere where the ceiling is not obvious.” It gave me the opportunity to go and build something at Baylor.

Whom do you consider a mentor?

Eugene Braunwald and Burton E. Sobel, MD. When I finished my training in Toronto, I went to San Diego on a scholarship to do research for 2 years. Gene was head of medicine there. Shortly after I arrived, within 6 months, he moved to head up medicine at Harvard, and I went to work in Burt Sobel’s lab. Burt was my true first mentor in doing research. I developed a first quantitative assay for MCBK, which is the marker that was used to diagnose MI for the next 20 to 30 years. Then I went with Burt to Washington University in St. Louis and was on faculty with him and ran the coronary care unit for 9 years. He was a mentor, boss and friend for 11 years. When Gene moved to Harvard, we continued a good relationship. He remained a strong mentor. We collaborated and published together, and continue to collaborate today.

What kind of diet and exercise regimen do you follow?

I try to minimize meat. Whenever I’m eating out, I always eat fish. I love fruits but not vegetables, so I emphasize eating fruit. My predominant exercise is playing tennis.

What do you think will have the biggest influence on cardiology in the next 10 years?

Genetics, which is my area of research. Soon it will be feasible to sequence the complete DNA genome of all individuals. We know DNA predisposes individuals to most diseases. Identifying that predisposition is something that over the next 2 decades will give rise to personalized medicine, to developing the right drug for the right disease at the right dose. I feel strongly that, as a result, genetics will play a large part in prevention. It will give us new targets for drugs that can often be individualized, not only for the disease but also often for the individual. In addition, it will be possible to identify those for whom the drug doesn’t work and also look at, for example, allergies. More than 100,000 people die every year in the United States from allergies to natural products or to drugs. That’s certainly a genetic disease, and if you knew the genes involved responsible for the allergic reaction, it would be much easier to prevent the reaction.

What is your favorite travel destination?

Countries with a rich history. For example, going to Egypt, a cradle of modern civilization, is always exciting, as is going to Greece, which is a cradle of democracy.

What is your favorite restaurant?

In Ottawa, it is Signatures, which is a French school, one of two left in North America. The most unbelievable restaurant I’ve ever gone to is El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain. When I went there, it was ranked No. 6 in the world (by Restaurant magazine); today, it’s ranked No. 1. It’s 3 or 4 hours of unbelievable eating. For example, when they bring the olives out, they’re attached to little trees, and you pick them off the trees. The food is phenomenal Catalonian cuisine. One of my former fellows is now the dean at the university in Girona, so that’s how I got to go there. – by Erik Swain