As a pediatric cardiologist, Gail Pearson, M.D., Sc.D., faces heart disease where most people least expect to find it—in the very young and most vulnerable. As associate director of the Division of Cardiovascular Sciences at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) and director of the Adult and Pediatric Cardiac Research Program, Pearson is able to understand, and affect, the complex world of heart disease from several perspectives.
The COVID-19 pandemic has added yet another dimension to that understanding – and another challenge. Some children who have been infected by SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, have had an overreactive immune response. As a result, these young people, typically under age 15, have become gravely ill with a rare, newly-discovered condition – multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) – which can have a severe impact on the heart, among other organs. Over the months, Pearson has been helping guide pediatric research related to COVID-19, all now forming the trans-NIH program CARING for Children with COVID.
“As a doctor, it has been terrific to watch my patients grow up, overcoming the many challenges of pediatric heart disease,” Pearson said. “As researcher, I have been able to contribute to the growth and health of many other children I will never meet.” Pearson, who is also the Director of the NHLBI’s Office of Clinical Research (OCR), joined the NHLBI in 1997 to oversee and develop the institute’s clinical pediatric cardiovascular research programs. In 2001, she led the establishment of the Pediatric Heart Network (PHN) to improve evidence-based treatment options and standards of care for patients of all ages with congenital heart disease, as well as for children with an acquired heart disease such as Kawasaki Disease. Today, the NHLBI-supported study on MIS-C is using that same PHN consortium.
Pearson also designed the Bench to Bassinet Program, launched in 2010, to speed the translation of pediatric heart disease discoveries into clinical practice. She is currently the NHLBI representative to several important NIH efforts, including the Trans-NIH Pediatrics Research Consortium, and the INCLUDE Project, a trans-NIH Down Syndrome research program. Pearson received her medical degree from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and a doctorate in health policy from Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. Until last August, in addition to her responsibilities at NHLBI, she taught and practiced at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where she had completed her pediatric residency and pediatric cardiology fellowship.