Like many scientists before him, Walter Boron’s medical discoveries are founded in basic scientific research, figuring out how things work. His breakthrough happened early, as a graduate student at Washington University in the mid-1970s. His first publication reporting the initial example of the active regulation of cell pH remains the most highly cited about acid-base balance, chosen by the American Physiological Society as one that “had significantly advanced the discipline of physiology” over the previous 125 years.
Since then, his accomplishments have been anything but basic, and Walter Boron will be honored as a Distinguished University Professor during fall convocation tomorrow, Aug. 26 (tune into the livestream). Boron, the David N. and Inez Myers/Antonio Scarpa Professor and chairman of the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Medicine, helped open the developing field of acid-base balance.
Investigating problems of pH regulation in the kidney, central nervous system and gastrointestinal tract, he has made many seminal contributions to pH research. His landmark paper was followed by his many publications in Nature, one of the premier scientific journals. He has published more than 200 original papers and edited two textbooks.
“Scientific discoveries are made by accident,” Boron said. “Our research produced a different result than expected. We repeated that experiment again and again to prove the validity of what we found, and people accepted it.” Deciding to make acid-base balance the foundation of his research, Boron said: “I’m stubborn, and I like sticking with something and digging deeper. A scientist’s goal is to change the way people think, and it’s gratifying that some of my work has achieved this.”
He received his first faculty appointment from Yale University, remaining there until 2007, when he returned to his roots in Northeast Ohio, accepting the chair of physiology and biophysics position at CWRU.
Boron also initiated an entirely new realm of research: transport of biologically important gases by integral membrane proteins, known as “gas channels.” The Boron lab developed the first practical blocker of an aquaporin, a class of water-channel proteins. Subsequent modifications of that compound improving its clinical suitability formed the basis of a company, Aeromics, founded in 2007, which Boron then moved to Cleveland.
The company developed a drug that blocks aquaporin 4 at the blood-brain barrier in 2019. In preclinical testing, the drug markedly reduced brain swelling (cerebral edema) in stroke and several other pathological conditions. Stroke-associated cerebral edema contributes to the disease as the third leading cause of death and the leading cause of disability in the U.S. and Europe. Aeromics is preparing for phase two efficacy trials and, if successful, the drug has the potential to revolutionize the treatment of stroke.
At CWRU, Boron used his textbook, Medical Physiology: A Cellular and Molecular Approach, as a framework to design a post-baccalaureate two-year program leading to a master’s degree in medical physiology. In its ninth year, the program has remained popular, matriculating about 180 students annually. Underrepresented minorities constitute nearly 40% of the class and a share of the income from the program is reinvested into enhancing departmental resources and a scholarship system that helps defray tuition costs for PhD students.
A recipient of many awards, including the Homer Smith Award from the American Society of Nephrology in 2005 and induction into the National Academy of Medicine in 2014. Boron also has a strong record of service and leadership in national and international organizations, including past president of the American Physiological Society and currently, secretary-general of the International Union of Physiological Sciences.