Of the four million infants born in the United States every year, nearly all are screened for 33 inherited but treatable disorders through a government-funded program. If you are looking for someone to thank, look no further than one Davidson alumnus, a pediatrician, geneticist and champion for newborn screening who has always been driven by what is best for every child.
As founding chair of the Secretary’s Advisory Committee of Heritable Disorders in Newborns and Children, Rodney Howell ’53 led the eight-year effort to establish in 2010 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ national screening guidelines, which expanded the core newborn screening panel to include the addition of many genetic and metabolic conditions.
As a new college student, Howell did not see himself going down the medical path, but many people around him thought it was the right fit. Eventually, he agreed.
“I was a very average student at Davidson – just never caught fire,” said Howell. “But Davidson treated students with great maturity, like we were all gentlemen. I felt trusted. Davidson gave me a strong background in how I should behave as a person and as a physician.”
Following his undergraduate years, Howell attended medical school at Duke University, which at the time did not attract many in-state students. He began his career with the National Institutes of Health before being recruited to a faculty position at Johns Hopkins University.
Without newborn testing, diseases can leave lasting—and in some cases, life-threatening—damage on children’s lives. One example: PKU.
“During the time I was at Hopkins, we learned that people with phenylketonuria or PKU, which up to this point caused profound [intellectual disability,] could have normal intelligence,” he said. “It is genetic and recessive, so no one knows they have it unless they are screened.”
With a special diet, the disease can be treated.
“I have a friend, an ENT surgeon, who has PKU,” said Howell. “Without treatment, he would have an IQ of less than 20, and now he’s a practicing surgeon.”
Following his time at Hopkins, Howell became the chair of pediatrics at the University of Texas in Houston. Today, he is professor and Chairman Emeritus of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Miami and a member of the John P. Hussman Institute for Human Genomics at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
Howell has taken his passion for newborn screening global over the last six years, including stops in Brazil, Vietnam and Mongolia. He’ll be in Morocco this summer.
“It’s difficult to have conversations about newborn screening when countries with no money are working to provide clean drinking water,” he said. “It is an intriguing challenge.”
Still working full-time and traveling the world at age 87, Howell has no plans of slowing down. Right now, he’s working to add muscular dystrophy to the newborn screening panel.
“It is now treatable, but even before that, knowing your child has it may affect how families plan for future children,” he said. “We have to ask what is beneficial to know about and what is harmful. Some things you may rather not know about if you can do nothing. That conversation is endless, and there will never be a permanent list for newborn screening. If I live to be 192 years old, the list will still be growing.”
Howell has earned recognition nationally and internationally for his life-altering contributions, including the title of Rare Disease Hero from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the March of Dimes.
Recommend a Game Changer
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