Dr. Peter Igarashi recently took over as dean of the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University. A native of California, Igarashi is a physician-scientist and a nephrologist, specializing in the study of kidneys. He was most recently chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of Minnesota. Newsday sat down and spoke with Igarashi about expanding research and integrating it with patient care and education, studying long COVID and conducting more clinical cancer trials.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Why did you decide to go into medicine?
My father was a scientist and my mother was a claims representative for the Social Security Administration. So that combination of science and service is what attracted me to the field of medicine. During high school, we had a program at Caltech (the California Institute of Technology) and I got exposed to biomedical research at a really early stage.
What are you looking forward to working on?
One of the major reasons I was attracted to this position is the opportunity to expand research within the Renaissance School of Medicine and integrate that with patient care and education. The function of an academic medical center is to provide the larger community — Suffolk County, Long Island and beyond — with access to state-of-the-art expertise, clinical trials, devices and so forth that are not generally available in the community. I’m trying to build bridges across the campus and connect [School of Medicine faculty] with [faculty from other Stony Brook schools] who otherwise may not collaborate. Because that’s where the magic happens in both patient care and research.
Stony Brook has been the site of free screenings, COVID-19 tests and vaccinations. What are some other ways it is working with the community?
We would like to do more outreach to our communities, including those that have been historically underserved in clinical care, academics, research and education. The mobile stroke unit that was developed here can be transformative for patients who experience a stroke out in the community because time is of the essence. Treatment can be initiated in the ambulance while the patient is being transported. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, more care is being done outside the hospital in the larger community and that’s why Stony Brook Medicine has now affiliated with hospitals in Southampton and Eastern Long Island, as well as hundreds of ambulatory sites in Suffolk County so patients can be seen closer to where they live.
The next step will be providing hospital-level care inside patients' homes through digital health and other types of mechanisms.
What kind of new research and clinical trials would you like to see more of at Stony Brook, especially with respect to COVID-19?
Long COVID is certainly going to be with us for a long time and we just don't understand enough about the pathophysiology of it. We need to understand that in order to develop effective treatments and better methods for diagnosis. That's clearly an area of public health need.
We have a very robust cancer center at Stony Brook. I would like to see many more clinical trials in cancer. This institution has been very strong and well known for its work on infectious disease and immunity. We’re a global community and infectious diseases that arise even outside our borders can have immediate effects on our population, particularly in New York since we're a gateway to the world. Having a robust infrastructure for infectious diseases research is going to be very important.
What can be done to get more young people, especially from underserved communities, interested in the medical field to make it more diverse?
We want to attract people at an earlier stage. I became interested in research and medicine before I even went to college, because I was exposed to biomedical researchers at Caltech. We have outreach programs to both high school and college students. We have programs geared toward providing opportunities to those who have historically been underrepresented in medicine and that includes scholarship opportunities. Unless this is presented as an option for you, how would you think about doing this as a career?
You are a nephrologist. What should people know about kidney disease and how to stay healthy?
There are tens of millions of Americans who have undiagnosed kidney disease. The most common cause of chronic kidney disease is diabetes and the second most common is elevated blood pressure. There have been enormous advances in understanding the causes of kidney disease as well as development of effective treatments. The important message here is to establish a relationship with a primary care physician. Controlling blood pressure is the single most important thing you can do for your kidneys. We have great medications now for achieving that.