Gale and Ira Drukier Prize in Children’s Health Research Awarded to University of Pittsburgh Pediatric Pulmonologist

NEW YORK (Sept. 22, 2021) — Dr. Erick Forno, a physician-scientist who investigates the risk factors and genomic mechanisms underlying childhood asthma, has been awarded the sixth annual Gale and Ira Drukier Prize in Children’s Health Research, Weill Cornell Medicine announced today.

The Drukier Prize honors an early-career pediatrician whose research has made important contributions toward improving the health of children and adolescents. Dr. Forno, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and a pediatric pulmonologist at the UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, is being recognized for two research innovations: his discovery of genomic markers associated with severe pediatric asthma; and identifying a mismatch between airway size and lung volume in children with asthma and obesity that may explain disease severity. These discoveries have the potential to lead to new diagnostic testing and customized treatment approaches for children with asthma. 

Dr. Forno received his award and gave a presentation on his work at a ceremony on Sept. 22, where Nobel laureate Dr. Gregg Semenza also delivered the Gale and Ira Drukier Lecture in Children’s Health, which highlights research and discoveries that have contributed to exceptional advances in the field of children’s health.

“Dr. Forno is a distinguished physician-scientist whose dedication to pediatric research and care exemplifies why the Drukiers established this award, and we are grateful to them for their continued support,” said Dr. Augustine M.K. Choi, the Stephen and Suzanne Weiss Dean of Weill Cornell Medicine. “His research into the mechanisms of childhood asthma and the association between obesity and the disease offers hope to children and their families for improved diagnoses and treatment opportunities in the future. We are delighted to recognize Dr. Forno with this year’s Gale and Ira Drukier Prize in Children’s Health Research.” 

Dr. Erick Forno

“We are thrilled to be honoring Dr. Forno with this award,” said Dr. Gale Drukier and Weill Cornell Medicine Fellow Dr. Ira Drukier, who together established the prize in 2014. “Dr. Forno’s commitment to improving the lives of children and adolescents with asthma is inspiring. We are proud to have the opportunity to showcase exceptional physicians and scientists, like Dr. Forno, who are making significant advancements in children’s health and illuminating the path for a brighter tomorrow.”

“Dr. Forno’s research underscores the value of understanding the genetic and epigenetic underpinnings of childhood diseases,” said Dr. Virginia Pascual, the Drukier Director of the Gale and Ira Drukier Institute for Children’s Health at Weill Cornell Medicine. “His work has advanced the field of pediatric pulmonology through his fundamental insights into the complexity of the disease, and has the potential to help guide treatment for asthma and help children worldwide. The Drukier Institute is pleased to honor Dr. Forno for his commitment to furthering this area of research.”

Dr. Forno’s research has provided insights into the altered gene regulation mechanisms that lead to asthma in children by examining the chemical marks on DNA that change how genes are expressed, called epigenetic marks. These may result from direct experiences with the environment, such as exposure to second-hand smoke and pollution, or be passed down genetically. In 2019, Dr. Forno discovered dramatic differences in epigenetic marks on genes related to airway integrity and immune regulation in children with asthma compared to those without the disease, using samples of cells lining the nasal airway as a proxy for cells lining the bronchial airway. The discovery of these altered genomic pathways may lead to the development of new clinical tests that could be used for early diagnosis of asthma, identifying environmental risk factors and determining whether patients respond to asthma treatments.

Within his research on obesity and asthma, Dr. Forno found that the severity of asthma in children with obesity is associated with a mismatch between lung volume and airway size, called airway dysanapsis, which may in part explain why these children do not respond to standard treatment such as inhaled corticosteroids as effectively as children of normal weight. He also discovered that while obesity may exacerbate the typical airway inflammation with asthma, it may cause systemic inflammation that needs to be considered when treating patients.

“I’m very thankful and humbled to receive this prestigious award,” Dr. Forno said. “It’s an important recognition of my work, and the great mentorship and support I have received. It also honors the contributions of all of the patients and families that agreed to participate in this research so that we can hopefully one day improve the lives of other children affected by this disease.”

The Gale and Ira Drukier Prize in Children’s Health Research and the Gale and Ira Drukier Lecture in Children’s Health were established in December 2014 as part of a $25 million gift to Weill Cornell Medicine. The gift also created the Gale and Ira Drukier Institute for Children’s Health—a premier, cross-disciplinary institute dedicated to understanding the underlying causes of diseases that are devastating to children. As part of its mission, the institute awards the annual Drukier Prize, which carries an unrestricted honorarium to recognize the innovative work done by young investigators in pediatric research. The Drukier Lecture brings leaders in children’s health to Weill Cornell Medicine and gives the pediatrics community the opportunity to learn, share ideas and forge collaborations. 

Dr. Gregg Semenza

A leading investigator on the molecular mechanisms of oxygen regulation, Dr. Semenza is the C. Michael Armstrong Professor of Genetic Medicine and director of the vascular program at the Institute for Cell Engineering at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. In 2019, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, with Dr. William Kaelin, Jr. of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Dr. Peter Ratcliffe of Oxford University, for their discoveries of how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability—research that may lead to new treatments for cancer, anemia and a variety of other diseases. Dr. Semenza received his bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and his medical and doctorate degrees from the University of Pennsylvania. Since 1990 he has served on the faculty at Johns Hopkins, where he is also a professor of genetic medicine, pediatrics, radiation oncology and molecular radiation sciences, biological chemistry, medicine, and oncology.

Dr. Forno received a medical degree from Universidad Cayetano Heredia in Lima, Peru, in 2001. He completed a postgraduate internship in general pediatrics at Children’s Hospital Colorado in 2006 and a fellowship in pediatric pulmonology at Boston Children’s Hospital in 2009 and earned a master’s degree in public health from the Harvard School of Public Health that same year.

Dr. Forno has received several awards, including the Klosterfrau International Award for Research of Airway Diseases in Childhood in 2017 and the Robert B. Mellins Outstanding Achievement Award from the American Thoracic Society Assembly on Pediatrics in 2017. He was elected to the Pediatric Research Society and selected as a fellow of the American Thoracic Society in 2018. He was recently named director of the Pediatric Asthma Center at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. Dr. Forno is currently funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, to continue his research into the genomics of obesity and asthma.

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