By Emily Williams-Robertshaw
If Dr. Richard J. Whitley was given a do-over, he’d do it all the same.
He’s dedicated his career to changing the way children are treated at Children’s of Alabama and globally through his work in infectious diseases and expertise in antiviral therapies.
His contributions have not gone unnoticed, as he recently was named recipient of the American Pediatric Society’s highest honor, the 2022 APS John Howland Award.
The award is presented annually to someone who has made significant contributions to advancing child health and the pediatric profession.
Whitley’s roles at UAB include vice chair of the Department of Pediatrics and co-director of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at the UAB Heersink School of Medicine and Children’s. He also holds the titles of Loeb Eminent Scholar chair in pediatrics; professor of microbiology, medicine and neurosurgery; senior scientist, Division of Human and Gene Therapy and the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center; and co-founder and co-director, Alabama Drug Discovery Alliance.
Amid the pandemic, he also became project director on a National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases grant that funded studies into the efficacy of remdesivir in COVID patients and played a major role in evaluating the safety and efficacy of coronavirus vaccines.
Science Rather Than Patients
Leaving the world of pediatrics better than he found it just so happens to be Whitley’s end goal in choosing an investigative path for his medical pursuits.
“I think I realized that if I became a pediatrician in Birmingham, or even a pediatrician in New Jersey, where I grew up … I’d only be helping a few children,” he said. “I wouldn’t be helping a lot of children.
“In academic medicine and when you’re doing clinical trials, you can impact global health if you can change the standard of care.”
Over four decades, Whitley has built an expertise in clinical virology, the hallmarks of which lie in his pioneering research into herpes antivirals and development of guidelines for the emergency use of influenza antiviral therapies in infants.
“The Howland Award is the culmination of me saying, ‘No,’” to becoming a practicing pediatrician, Whitley said.
When Whitley first entered the medical field, he envisioned the “be all, end all” being a departmental chair title. Yet, when asked to chair departments at powerhouse universities such as Stanford, Vanderbilt and the University of Chicago, he declined. He preferred his role as a clinician scientist.
“I said no to all of those institutions so I could continue to do my work and continue to learn more about these viruses but also continue to be baffled by this family of viruses,” Whitley said. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
When he pictures his first memories of the medical profession, they aren’t entirely fond ones.
He recalls the yesteryear practices of children stripping off their clothes and lining up in gym class as a doctor of unidentified distinction pressed a stethoscope to their chests and checked for hernias. These are situations that would never occur today, Whitley notes.
One year, the physician called Whitley’s parents and told them he suspected their son had a heart murmur most probably caused by a rheumatic fever.
“My parents, being your typical good parents, took me to my local pediatrician, who had never done anything to hurt me before, but it was about to happen,” he said.
There were three trips to visit the pediatrician. The first felt harmless as the doctor took a marker to Whitley’s chest and mapped out his heart, listening carefully for problem areas.
The second visit was a little worse and involved X-rays of his heart.
“This was in the old days when you swallowed this crazy dye,” Whitley said. He got through it without too much trouble, though the thought that the dye might cause some kind of cancer did knock at his brain later in life.
The third time included drawing blood and involved a notable amount of emotional despair on Whitley’s part.
“They came after me with a syringe that was as long as my arm, and they didn’t tell me what they were doing,” he said. After considerable amounts of protest in the form of kicking and screaming and being held down, the blood sample was collected and tested negative for rheumatic fever.
“As I was sitting in the car going back to my home … I can remember thinking to myself, ‘If I ever become a doctor, I would never treat a child that way,’” he said.
An accomplished equestrian, a young Whitley figured he would become a veterinarian for large animals. But a combination of his experiences in the field solidified a life in pediatrics.
When his favorite horse became ill with no hope of recovery, Whitley made a call to a nearby veterinarian who didn’t mince words. Those words being, “The gun’s in my truck. Go put your horse down,” as Whitley recalls.
“It was a week later that I was teaching another kid how to ride a horse,” he said. “She fell off on a jump when the horse got spooked by a rabbit, and broke her arm.”
Field setting broken bones was something that Whitley had been taught as a coach, but when he took the student to an orthopedic surgeon in a nearby town, he found his skills were above average.
The doctor spent some time glancing quizzically between the patient, the X-ray and Whitley before commending the field setting and suggesting that Whitley pursue medicine.
“That kind of changed the way I looked at life,” Whitley said.
Children and Investigations
Whitley realized his passion for clinical research organically while working in the newborn intensive care unit as a medical student.
One night, he found himself working in the NICU alone after his resident experienced a preeclamptic seizure, and he was asked to treat a newborn.
It was a peculiar case resulting in a petechial rash, a large liver and spleen and microcephaly, which is a small head, all leading to a question mark rather than a diagnosis. He jumped on the investigation, ordering tests and hitting the books to see what the cause could be.
“After I did all of that, it’s the middle of the night but it’s as if I’d had my tenth cup of coffee because I was so excited about this,” he said.
The result was a diagnosis of a congenital cytomegalovirus, but he felt a strong desire to go deeper.
“So, I posed a question to myself, which was, ‘Why would a woman transmit a viral infection to her fetus in utero. It happens with rubella and it happens with CMV. I want to go figure that out,” he said.
He spoke to his adviser, who told him there was one person in the country who could help him in his quest and that person was Dr. Charles Alford, who had established one of the most influential infectious disease divisions in the world at UAB.
Whitley transferred to UAB for his senior year of medical school, working under Alford and studying the pathogenesis of herpes and CMV
“I knew I was going to have to take a pause in the research because I had to become a real doctor and get a license to practice medicine, so I did my internship here and it was one of those magical internships where nothing could go wrong,” he said. “Even to the point where the seniors in the graduating class asked me to give the commencement address after being here for one year.”
For all of the trepidation he felt in leaving his research to finish his studies, Whitley was supported by superiors who fast-tracked his studies and allowed him to start his fellowship early with a guaranteed faculty position at the end.
“There was always a carrot at the end of the stick and it was always leading me to pediatric infectious diseases and it was always leading me to the diseases that related to viral pathogenesis,” he said.
Whitley was able to take on the work that Alford left to assume a departmental chair role, studying viruses such as CMV and neonatal herpes in hope of generating better methods of treatment.
“The more I did it the more I liked it, but the more I did it the more I realized that there were so many things I didn’t know and that I had to learn,” he said.
When he ran out of knowledge, he sought more. He took a sabbatical and traveled to the University of Chicago. “I went up to the lab of Bernard Roizman and I learned how to do enough molecular biology to get myself into trouble,” Whitley said, with a laugh.
After years spent studying the herpes simplex virus and realizing a vaccine wasn’t in the cards, Whitley found a way to change it, shifting genes to create a new virus with a new purpose.
“Here, after I’ve been studying this bad virus for all of these years that was killing babies and adults, I now took the bad virus and made it into a good virus and we were able to treat brain tumors,” he said.
“It just taught me that you need to reinvent yourself periodically and you never lose enthusiasm and respect for the viruses that you are working with, because they are always going to send you a curveball and you’re not going to be able to hit it,” he said. “You’ve gotta go back and figure out why. That’s the fun of infectious diseases.”
Though Whitley shifted away from herpes simplex virus studies, the work is ongoing at UAB and has resulted in a second and third generation of viruses used to treat diseases.
Accolades for His Award
“Dr. Whitley’s lifetime of work as a clinician, an educator and an investigator has touched countless lives, both of patients near and far and of medical students, residents, fellows and colleagues around the world,” said Dr. Mitch Cohen, chair of the Department of Pediatrics at UAB and Children’s. “Beyond the importance of his work on antiviral therapy, he established the framework within which multi-institutional studies could be conducted in rare pediatric diseases other than cancer.
“Virtually all pediatricians and pediatric infectious diseases clinicians and many physicians who practice any form of primary care regularly use recommendations that resulted from his work. His sustained contributions to pediatrics have had a major impact for over 40 years, and his ongoing endeavors in drug discovery and exploration promise future benefits as well.”
Whitely noted that there were many people who were deserving of the award.
“It could have gone to any one of about four or five dozen people who I know,” Whitley said.
He credits UAB for always meeting his needs and giving him the support he needed to be successful, whether through his early mentors or his current colleagues and superiors.
He sees medicine as a team sport.
“We work together and we share toys in the sandbox,” he said. “That’s the only way to look at it.”